Casazza column: Bruce set bar high with debut
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Isaiah Bruce sat in his hotel room at Lakeview Golf Resort & Spa the night of Aug. 31, his college debut just one night's sleep away, and went through the scouting report on Marshall one last time.
"I didn't know what to expect about my first game," the redshirt freshman linebacker said. "I wanted to do anything I could to make sure I played as sharply as possible."
He turned off the lights and slipped under the covers, finally granting his roommate for the night, linebacker Shaq Petteway, a reprieve so they could get their rest.
Petteway had played a college game before. He'd seen Marshall as a true freshman last year. He'd run out onto the turf at Mountaineer Field. He'd made plays in the Orange Bowl.
Bruce redshirted in 2011. Though he'd locked down a starting spot as the Sam linebacker, he hadn't played a real football game since guiding Jacksonville, Fla.'s Providence High to its first playoff berth in 2010.
So he stirred in bed and thought about what would happen against the Thundering Herd. Never did he dream, or dare to dream, about making the 16 tackles he would make.
"Not even close," he said. "That was a pretty good start."
Pretty good, yes, but do you know what's better than 16 tackles? Twenty-one tackles.
"If he played a little more under control, he would have had more than 20 tackles," said WVU's linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator, Keith Patterson. "He missed five tackles where he was totally out of control."
Consider that James Madison, the fifth-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision that plays No. 9 WVU at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at FedEx Field, has missed 10 tackles in its 2-0 start.
"I'm probably harder on him than anybody else on the field," Patterson said. "But you can see it in him. It's not about what he is right now. It's about what he can become."
Bruce fits Patterson's vision of a middle linebacker in this defense. He's rangy at 6-foot-1, with long arms and strides that let him make tricky plays in the open space opposing defenses try to create. Bruce ran the 110-meter high hurdles early in his high school career before switching to the 300 intermediates. He won a state title as a junior and could have run on scholarship in college had he not retired after his championship.
Bruce committed to WVU after his senior football season and was the high school's first player to commit to a BCS program. He then resumed his basketball career after sitting out as a junior, when Providence won a state title. Bruce played a little for a team with two Division I players, but ended up starting at center in the regional semifinal and getting 15 points and 10 rebounds in a win.
That's what Patterson has in Bruce, someone who can use the totality of his athletic experiences to be what he calls an explosive blitzer and capable playmaker. But who he has is a different matter because Patterson is trying to convince Bruce he is "completely untapped" as a player.
"He's so hungry to become a great player that he takes hard coaching," Patterson said. "You take a young player and he completely allows you to coach him hard and he buys into what you're doing, look out."
Bruce did more than make 16 tackles, and miss five others in the Marshall game. He recovered a fumble linebacker Terence Garvin forced and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown to challenge his distaste for running, which was one reason he gave up on track.
It was the third straight game WVU has had a defensive/non-offensive touchdown, two shy of the previous best of five straight games to end the 2000 season, and Bruce wound up as the Big 12 Conference's defensive player of the week. It made for quite the debut, but also quite the act to follow.
"You always have to have a bar set for where you're going to improve from, so I'll definitely remember the past a little bit, but I don't want to live in the past," Bruce said. "I like to think about the past for continuous improvements."
It's precisely what Patterson wants. He let Bruce enjoy the 16 tackles and the congratulatory text messages that came in far greater volume. He was happy about Bruce enjoying a quiet night after the game and a quaint dinner with his girlfriend.
A day later, the missed tackles and the unrepressed plays were on the film and on display as teaching points.
Bruce has been Patterson's most consistent linebacker since the beginning of spring practice, but even that is in the past. This has become about the future for Bruce and all those who follow.
"His style of play is unique and different from Doug Rigg and Doug Rigg is different from Shaq Petteway," Patterson said. "I want them all to become the best they can be and be their own guy. I don't ever want guys to look at film and say, 'I want to play like that.' I want people to talk about Isaiah Bruce and say, 'I want to be like him.' "
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.