The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

March 29, 2011

Irvin is different breed

MORGANTOWN — Ever since the moment Robert Sands announced he was leaving West Virginia a year early to terrorize NFL receivers and running backs the way he had collegians for three years, this idea has swirled around in the back of a vacant mind.

Given the safety position that Sands played, it seemed almost as if the Mountaineers could take the second most intimidating member of their defense from a year ago — Bruce Irvin — and turn him into the next Robert Sands ... or the first Bruce Irvin, if the plan worked as expected.

It would allow him to use the whole field to display his speed, size and tackling power rather than just one side of the field. It would allow him to play every down, rather than just in passing situations as he did last year.

In fact, this is hard to imagine, Irvin took part in only 21 tackles last year, but 14 of them were sacks, which ranked second in the nation.

The idea seemed so obvious that in a pre-spring interview session, we pulled defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel off to the side to offer such a suggestion, fully expecting a long, loud belly laugh and getting a lecture on how it’s best for the sports writers to write and the coaches to coach, the way Knute Rockne and Grantland Rice created the professions many years ago.

Surprise!

“We started him at linebacker,” Casteel said, speaking of Irvin’s first days at WVU after having played two years at Mount San Antonio Junior College. “His eyes just ... he just hasn’t played enough football and I don’t know that we had enough time.”

Then Casteel added a wish that he would love to have seen come true.

“It he was a freshman and we had four years with that kid ...” he said, his voice trailing off. He had made his point.

Casteel found himself in much the same situation Irvin’s junior college coach had found himself in when Irvin showed up there from Stone Mountain, Ga., outside Atlanta.

That coach thought a whole lot like a sports writer and wanted to put him at safety, but Irvin arrived so near the season opener that he didn’t have time to learn the position. So he was moved to rush end and given simple instructions.

“Just put your hand in the dirt and go get the quarterback.”

Irvin terrorized quarterbacks and became one of the three top junior college players to come out in 2010. He decided upon West Virginia because he had a long-standing, tight relationship with wide receiver coach Lonnie Galloway, who just recently left the WVU program for Wake Forest.

Again he was put at end because the time scale didn’t lend itself to changing him, Sands being still on hand at safety and J.T. Thomas at linebacker.

“I don’t know that it would be fair to him [to try and make him a linebacker],” Casteel said. “We said, ‘Let’s just let him do what he does, rush the passer, and develop him in the spring.’”

Now he has grown into the position, weighing in the neighborhood of 245 pounds as spring practice begins Wednesday.

He’s ready to become an every-down player ... but at defensive end.

“Johnny Dingle played that position for us at 240 to 250,” Casteel noted. “He’s an explosive kid. He just has to learn to utilize his explosiveness.”

The truth is that like Sands, Irvin is a unique specimen, the kind a coach comes across once, maybe twice, in a career and Casteel knows it. Asked if he ever had coached anyone like Irvin, his eyes got wide and he answered emphatically, “No!”

“He’s so strong,” Casteel said. “We’ve had good players there, but from a physical standpoint he might be something we haven’t had.”

And that sets up a difficult problem for offenses.

“Think about it,” Casteel said. “We had him on one side getting 14 sacks and we had Julian on the other side getting nine.”

Indeed, Miller is a two-year starter who has recorded nine sacks in each year and enters his senior season ranked fourth in sacks on the WVU all-time list.

He benefits from Irvin, who drew special attention from midseason on last year.

“Toward the latter part of the year they started thinking, ‘We better find a way to block 11.’ He knows that. He has a great attitude,” Casteel said.

In fact, Casteel glows when he talks about Irvin.

“He has a way about him. He wants to learn. He wants to get better. This is a kid that’s hungry and has a lot of ability,” Casteel said. “He’s fun to coach and to be around. He’s thankful for the opportunity he’s getting, too.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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