By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
When this 2012 football adventure got under way, it appeared as though any Tom, Dick or Harry could play defense for West Virginia University … and was.
That was deceiving, though. No, not in the fact that they weren’t able to stop anything an offense tried to do. That was very real.
It was just that it wasn’t Tom, Dick or Harry playing … the defense instead being manned by Joseph, Francis and Bruce, three young men with last names that could be first names and with enough desire and inexperience to have an upside that offered great promise even in the darkness of the moment.
In real life they are safety Karl Joseph, a true freshman out of Orlando, Fla.; SAM linebacker Isaiah Bruce, redshirt freshman out of Jacksonville, Fla., and Buck linebacker Josh Francis, a senior out of Damascus, Md.
As the season opened, the defense was in state of turmoil, possessing not only a new defensive scheme and philosophy under a new defensive coordinator and staff and filled with any number of players who either had not started at WVU or, for that matter, had not yet taken a class at the school.
It was a work in progress … and at first glance not much progress has been made as the Mountaineers gave up 560 yards to Marshall, 700 and nine touchdowns to Baylor and 404 yards and 45 points to Texas.
But that is deceiving for the run defense seems to be getting legs, holding Baylor to 119 rushing yards and powerhouse Texas to 135 following a crushing performance against Maryland in holding the Terrapins to just 48 yards.
OK, they are not yet anywhere near being the Doomsday Defense of the Dallas Cowboys or the No Name defense of the Miami Dolphins or the Purple People Eaters in Minnesota … but the flicker of life that is coming forward now gives reason for hope.
“From the start of the season we were saying the ball is not going to run through the heart of this defense,” Francis said. “We are trying to make teams one-dimensional. We’ve been getting better at that as the season went along.”
It is the three kids with the two first names who are showing the way.
“They play hard … hard,” defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said in talking about the trio of defenders. “You look at the way those three kids play, and you wish all your kids played like that all the time.”
And the hardest player — and hitter — of them all is Joseph, a 197-pound man-child who is already leaving his mark on the Big 12 … and that mark is in the shape of a huge bruise.
“Karl Joseph is a tremendous talent,” DeForest said. “As a true freshman we are asking him to do a lot of things in this defense and, shoot, he knocked the receiver out at Texas and caused a fumble. Then he buckled the offensive lineman on the goal line and buckled his knee.”
Soft spoken off the field, Joseph is a one-man wrecking crew on it … and hardly quiet. He’ll talk trash with the best of them while backing it up with his actions.
“It’s football,” he said. “You’ve got to go all-out every play, every game. You can’t really save yourself. That’s just how I play.”
“We want every aggressive bone in his body getting after people,” DeForest said.
And that is what they are getting … on every single play as he has yet to come out of a game, being without any kind of experienced backup due to injury.
He doesn’t mind, and he’s not exactly out there playing safety-first football.
“I try to intimidate people a lot, especially by being physical,” he said. “As many chances as I get to intimidate someone, I try to do it.”
This is what all three of those players do, according to DeForest.
“An aggressive person is aggressive regardless. I don’t think you can teach it and it’s ingrained in you, and those guys have it,” he said.
Francis is a different kind of player than Joseph, who comes out of the Troy Polamalu school of football.
“Francis is so active, so fast. He creates mismatches for the offensive linemen. It’s difficult for any of them to block him in space,” DeForest noted.
Bruce just had to relearn everything about football that he had learned before.
“I feel in myself I haven’t changed since last year,” he said. “As far as my work ethic, it has never changed. It’s what I carry onto the field. I just keep doing the fundamentals right at 100 miles an hour. That’s all I know.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.