WVU football: Bruce takes shining star outside
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If it seems bold that West Virginia defensive coordinator Keith Patterson would dare to move arguably his best defensive player at the end of preseason camp, the justification Patterson offered might have equaled the move.
"I can tell you right now," Patterson said late last week, "he's already a better player on the perimeter than he ever was inside."
A year ago, Isaiah Bruce was a bright spot for an otherwise dismal defense. He had 94 tackles, second on the team to fellow freshman Karl Joseph, and led the Mountaineers and two interceptions and two fumble recoveries as a middle linebacker in the 3-4 scheme.
Early last week, though, Patterson, who doubles as the linebackers coach, took Bruce from his productive post at the Sam spot and slid him outside to the Spur. Patterson had thought through everything. He watched and then re-watched Bruce start 12 games and play all 13 last season. He watched the 15 spring practices and then the majority of camp.
"I had a gut feeling that it was going to work," Patterson said. "I felt like it was something we had to do."
This wasn't an experiment, even as Bruce dutifully defined it as one in order to protect the secrecy of closed practices. Patterson waited to make the move, giving him time to evaluate all the options. When he made the move, though, he knew it was permanent.
And it is.
"It's done. He's outside," Patterson said. "I think he'll play better out there. I think he makes us a better defense out there."
That's not the bold part, though. Bruce was one of the few players the defense could rely on last year, to the point Patterson admittedly played the freshman far too often and contributed to accumulating aches and pains. It stood to reason that Bruce would get better as his body matured, his knowledge expanded, his experience increased and his skills developed.
So if Bruce was one of the defense's best players and most able linebackers, then he shouldn't have an issue moving a few feet to the side.
The truly powerful part of this decision is that Patterson was perhaps more impressed by the players behind Bruce.
"I thought we had guys that were maybe even as good or better inside," Patterson said.
Senior Doug Rigg and junior Jared Barber have played plenty to prove their worth through the years and sophomore Nick Kwiatoski had been a first-team player throughout camp. Sean Walters is a redshirt freshman who has impressed Patterson.
Patterson knew all about them, but he discovered something else when he moved Bruce. He invited senior Tyler Anderson inside and watched that work out as well as Bruce's move.
"He had his best week of practice since I've been here," Patterson said of the former Morgantown High star. He's physical, big. It's different for him, but it's where he started in the stack defense. It made sense to me."
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Bruce will be the Spur in the base defense. Patterson said he'll come off the field when a game situation asks for a new package and that he won't be an inside linebacker in different personnel groupings.
Meanwhile, Bruce can focus on his new position and some of the things he hasn't had to do in a long time. He said he hadn't really blitzed since he was a sophomore at Providence High, in Jacksonville, Fla. He's found it's not like riding a bike.
"I'm definitely on training wheels right now, but I'm slowly getting back into it," he said. "But the linemen are a bit faster."
There were a few plays on few days when Bruce played outside like he did inside. The middle was crowded with action on both sides and an opponent usually found Bruce quickly. That meant he had to move fast and play fast to make things happen.
So as he was learning about Spur, Bruce would rally to the ball and simply become part of a crowd. Other times, a play would go to the other side of the field and he'd pursue, but that only hurt the play because he could no longer defend a move that cut back across the field and into the space Bruce vacated.
There's less going on when he's restricted to one side of the field, but it doesn't mean he has to do more.
"I just have to worry about taking care of my part," he said. "If I take care of my one-eleventh, I'm making sure we have a successful play."
Bruce now has a chance to do more in an area with fewer distractions.
"When you're inside, you can see pretty much the entire formation," Patterson said. "You can see the offensive line, you can see the backs. When you move to the (wide side of the field), now you know you're only focusing right through that end man on the line of scrimmage and it's easier to key things. And things don't get on you as fast as they do inside.
"For Isaiah, the angles are better. He's taking on different blocks and taking them on differently. He's very, very elusive and has an ability to slip blocks, but the strength to come in and force blocks. I just really like what I've seen from him."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.