WVU football: Irvin faces critical season in 2011
MORGANTOWN - The ultimate legacy Bruce Irvin may leave behind at West Virginia is that he was like few others.
For one weekend in April, though, the quarterback-sacking junior college transfer did something so many others do and watched the NFL Draft.
His interest was a little different, though. The 2011 Draft was heavy on players like Irvin, those defensive ends and outside linebackers who pressure the pocket and make plays in the backfield. Six were taken in the first round and a bunch more came off the board in the second and third rounds.
"Von Miller went No. 2 overall," Irvin said of the former Texas A&M outside linebacker selected by the Denver Broncos. "I think I can do what he does."
Miller is 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds and made his name by leading the nation with 17 sacks in 2009 and adding 101/2 this past season. Irvin is an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter, but had 14 sacks in 2010, his first season at WVU after leaving a junior college in California with 16 sacks and the distinction as arguably the top-ranked defensive end/outside linebacker.
The way the NFL has recently changed, with the preference going to the pass and a premium being placed on making quarterbacks uncomfortable, there's a place for Irvin and players like him.
"You do think about it," Irvin said. "I see a lot of people have me in their mock drafts in the first round, the first couple of rounds. It's nice to think about it, but at the end of the day, you've still got to perform. All of that stuff doesn't mean a thing. I've still got a season to play."
The difference between Miller and Irvin - and, really, between Irvin and the others who went early in the draft - is in reputation. Irvin played only about 225 snaps last year as a pass-rush specialist.
In five games, he saw fewer than 15 total snaps. He played on a defense that was solid against the run and often forced teams to pass.
He excelled in those situations and on third down, when the Mountaineer defense had a very good idea what was coming.
Granted, what he accomplished, that he was the first WVU player to get double-digit sacks since Gary Stills in 1998, cannot be taken from Irvin. It might have even given him a reason to consider cashing in early.
"Leave school early?" he said. "I never thought about it. You only live college once. Me being here one year and leaving, I don't think it was worth it being a third- or fourth-round guy, leaving this great state, when I can come back and be a hot name and maybe be one of the top players at my position."
College offers dual luxuries for Irvin. He's the first to admit the coming season is a benefit. He can round out his game by expanding his role and wiping away the suggestion 2010 was a fluke and the product of his spot in the system.
The other part is that college isn't something Irvin wants to leave so soon. Not after what preceded the experience.
"This is a blessing," said Irvin, who was second-team all-Big East last season. "I went through a lot of adversity to be in my situation. I think I'm different than a lot of other people. I started at the bottom. I know what it feels like to be at the bottom and rise up.
"It feels good to see me on magazine covers, but that's not what I'm all about. I'm here to play football games. I've still got dreams I'm trying to reach. It all makes me feel good, but I've still got a lot of work to do."
Irvin, a 23-year-old who'll celebrate a birthday during the season, is from Stone Mountain, Ga., and was a high school receiver. He never graduated high school, though, and his grades conspired to keep him from accepting scholarship offers from the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences.
He dropped out and took a year to take the General Educational Development test and get his diploma. Irvin then tried to get on the team at Butler Community College, in Kansas, before ending up at Mt. San Antonio College, in California, as a safety.
There was no scholarship. He didn't have a job. He wasn't given a place to live on campus. He was alone with no friends, no family and no clue how to play his position.
It was him and six or seven roommates under the same roof. They made it work with two bedrooms, but Irvin slept on the floor a lot and admits "you had creatures living with you sometimes."
"I'd get depressed about my money situation," he said. "I could only eat one or two meals a day."
Irvin never stopped, though. He soldiered through his first season with the Mounties and made 22 tackles in 12 games. He showed up just two weeks before the start of his second season and realized he was no better off at the position, but was moved to defensive end and told to sack the quarterback.
He did it four times in his first game and ended up keying his team's run to a national title.
"I didn't want to go back to Atlanta," he said. "That was the main thing for me. I couldn't go back to what I was doing, to the people who wanted to see me fail. I had that in the back of my mind all the time. My friends, the people I ran with, they're doing the same things right now. I couldn't go back to that."
Those hardships are gone now. Life at WVU is comfortable by comparison. In a year, he has become a face of the program. He is recognized across campus and respected as an all-conference, or even all-America, caliber player. He'll be one of the players to represent the team at the Big East's media day later this summer.
The biggest burden now is his transition to an every-down player, which is the biggest reason he's back with the Mountaineers.
"It's different when you start at the bottom as opposed to being the person who always had everything and then goes to the bottom and doesn't know how to react," he said. "I busted my butt and did what I said I was going to do and now I'm back here ready for whatever comes next."