WVU football: For Bruce, other sports have helped linebacker
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Isaiah Bruce is a coach's dream and a coach's dilemma.
To be fair to the redshirt freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., and to go by what peers are saying during his first spring with West Virginia's football team, the linebacker is more the former than latter.
"He's extremely talented," said Keith Patterson, the co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. "He's got the body type and the athleticism we look for in our scheme because he makes plays in space. He's an explosive blitzer."
That's high praise for a player who hasn't taken a college snap and is behind junior Doug Rigg and sophomore Jared Barber in the middle, but it's also highly ironic since Bruce admits that "I don't like to run."
Perhaps that explains the 101 tackles and the six sacks he had as a senior for Providence School.
Then again, how does the 6 foot, 1 inch, 225-pound Bruce explain being the 2010 Class 2A state champion in the 300-meter hurdles?
"Well, I was strictly stuck on the 110 hurdles. That was what I wanted to win at states," Bruce said. "After my freshman year, my coach told me about the 300. I'm like, 'The 300? That's a long race and constant sprinting. I'm sticking with the 110.'
"Then my coach pretty much forced me into the 300 hurdles."
Bruce's first 300 race was as a sophomore at the district championships. He reached the state meet as a 10th grader then won the state title as a junior.
"After that, I thought, 'I've got my ring, I don't need to do it again,' " he said.
That didn't please everyone. His coach and his school wanted him to keep running. Bruce said Florida State was interested in offering a track scholarship, but the prep star declined.
His junior season for the Stallions football team, his third of four as a starting linebacker and his first of two in the middle, was good to him. The colleges were paying close attention and waiting to offer Bruce a scholarship.
No one in the program's history had gotten a scholarship to a BCS conference football school.
When he was a senior, there was no question he'd become the first and eventually choose WVU over offers from Purdue, Marshall and Wake Forest. Providence finished 10-2 and made the regional final and Bruce was a big reason why.
Yet with the future mapped out and his track days in his past, Bruce decided to play basketball, despite not playing since his sophomore year. There hardly was any time between the football and basketball seasons as a junior and Bruce wanted to devote his attention to football in the winter before going for that state title in track.
So he did all that, generated all the football scholarship offers during his senior season and returned to the basketball court.
"I figured it was my last year in high school and I was probably never going to play organized basketball again, so why not play my last year?" Bruce said. "We lost a lot players from the year before and my coach and my teammates wanted me to play, so I decided to do it.
"Plus, we ended up winning state the year before, and I said, 'Well, I've got to play next year.' "
Providence was a talented team with Will Cummings, who signed at Temple, and Wayne Martin, the Florida Association of Basketball Coaches 2010-11 Class 2A Player of the Year, who signed at Central Florida. The Stallions were the top-ranked team in the state and played into the regional semifinal, but had to go on without Martin.
He tore an Achilles' tendon in practice a few days before the semifinal, the kind of injury Bruce knew he was risking. It was Bruce who helped out, though, with 15 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks while starting for Martin - who was the team's 6-7 center. Providence won, but lost the regional final by two points to the eventual state runner-up.
"It actually helped me out a lot," Bruce said. "I had a lot of fun and it gave me a lot of confidence going forward. I was happy I made that decision."
So, too, is Patterson. He says Bruce is the type of player WVU wants to recruit, but not solely because he's familiar with the middle or capable in open space. Patterson likes to recruit multi-sport athletes and multi-sport winners.
Patterson sees spread offenses across college football now. It used to be that a small number of teams featured the spread. Now almost every team is capable of some variation of the spread as part of their attack.
"As a defense, you have to have guys on the field who can make plays in space," Patterson said. "Teams are doing these negative-yardage routes that all of a sudden turn into a 9-yard gain and it's nothing but a long handoff. You have to have guys who can move and make plays.
"Honestly, I like recruiting the multi-sport athletes. I think sometimes it's not always about what you see because their ceiling for improvement maybe is higher."
That's Bruce, who will attack from the middle for the Mountaineers like he did for the Stallions, who eventually realized Bruce was better in the middle than he was outside because opponents spent two years staying away from his side of the field.
Bruce has the size and strength to post up an opponent or to shed blocks. He can move laterally to take a charge or blow up a screen pass. He can stride and surge to clear a hurdle or hurdle a cut block. He can explode to finish a race or to finish a tackle.
"I feel like it's good to see a different variety of sports and opponents and to have different teammates and different experiences," Bruce said. "That can really help your overall experience because it's all different competition and it's different conditioning. Each sport helps you with other sports and at the end you feel like you've done and seen everything."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.