The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

August 12, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Irvin compares favorably to WVU great

MORGANTOWN — The conversation with Bill Kirelawich was as one-sided as the West Virginia University-Norfolk State football game figures to be this fall. See, Kirelawich, who goes by Kirlav, is a Division I-A conversationalist, while most journalists spend half their lives trying to get their tongue out of the way of their eye tooth so they can see what they are saying.

It’s a mismatch.

The subject was whether today’s pass-rushing sensation, Bruce Irvin, is as quick around the corner as was the best pass rusher the Mountaineers had on the corner a decade ago, Gary Stills, who spent almost a decade with the Kansas City Chiefs.

“They are both about the same kind of kid. The only difference I see is Bruce is a little bit bigger and stronger than Gary was,” Kirlav said.

Most people would stop there, having answered the question, but with Kirlav, each answer is a marathon that winds through the streets of the unexpected, a step hither, a step yon.

“A lot of people don’t see it; Bruce is an unnaturally strong kid,” Kirlav noted.

He had gone from quickness to strength, almost before you knew he had even turned the corner, and he was about to introduce perhaps the most unexpected character he could into this football conversation.

“I was just reading Mickey Mantle’s book — and I was just telling (WVU defensive coordinator) Jeff (Casteel) about this — Mantle’s body didn’t match the numbers he put up. He was only 5-11 and 195 pounds and he wasn’t supposed to hit 500-foot home runs,” Kirlav said.

“He wasn’t supposed to run as fast as he did, but one guy described Mickey as ‘the more clothes he took off, the bigger he got.’ You know what I mean? You look at him, and he looks like a big guy.”

Indeed, Mantle was not an imposing physical specimen fully clothed, but bare his upper body and he had shoulders that were unique and forearms that defied belief.

Baseball writer Larry Schwartz described it this way on ESPN.com:

“His shoulders, arms and back were thickly muscled, his neck was huge and his forearms bulged, looking like Popeye’s after eating spinach.”

He did it, we might add, without lifting weights other the bales of hay he would throw around on the Oklahoma farm and without steroids.

“That’s the way Bruce Irvin is. You look at his size, and he isn’t supposed to be that strong, but he is. That’s the difference between he and Gary Stills,” Kirlav said.

You ask Irvin about his strength, something we couldn’t wait to do once talking to Kirlav, and this is where he took you.

“My strength is very underrated. Ask people on the team. Quinton Spain and I go at it, and he’s got me by a whole 100 pounds and we’ll be going at it in practice. When the season comes, people will see.”

While Irvin doesn’t throw bales of hay around and can’t mess with steroids due to the NCAA’s testing policies, he does understand where his strength comes from.

Sort of …

“It’s my hair,” said the man in dreadlocks, pulled back and held out of his face by a rubber bands. “If I cut my hair I’d probably lose and inch and lose some weight.”

He laughs, but you sense he really isn’t joking and wouldn’t want to cut off his hair to test it out.

As we all know by now, Irvin burst onto the scene out of nowhere a year ago, coming out of Georgia by way of a California junior college and arriving in Morgantown in August, too late to learn the whole defense but early enough to understand that he has this gift of being able to rush a man intent on passing the football.

He became a third-down specialist, which limited him to little over 200 plays last season, yet led the Big East Conference with 14 sacks out of his 22 tackles.

Today, there are people who look at that and consider him half a player, a designated sack master in keeping with the baseball theme Kirelawich brought up.

They say he is natural pass rusher, a point even Kirlav makes.

“If you get down to it, I think most pass rushers are natural. They’ve got the speed; they’ve got the fluidity. They are basketball forwards who are playing football. They are going against stocky little fat guys,” is his unique way of putting it.

Well, Irvin won’t grant that it’s natural, and he certainly won’t grant that he is strictly a pass rusher.

“I feel like I have something to prove. I hate hearing that term ‘third-down player.’ I didn’t come here to play third down. It just happened. I have a lot to prove. People say I can’t play the run, which obviously I can. I don’t think Kirlav will put me in the game if he thinks I can’t play with the ones,” he said.

He goes out of his way to find the criticism of his play.

“It just motivates me. I like seeing what people think. When I am tired, I think about it, what people are saying about me on the message boards or an article that calls me overrated. I use it as a motivation tool,” he said.

Reading that he is overrated makes him seethe.

“I don’t understand how you can be overrated if I play 200 plays and get 14 sacks,” he said. “I mean, they say I’m the 37th best defensive end in the country. I don’t know there were 37 defensive ends in the country. Everyone has his opinion, but obviously, people don’t watch football. I’ll prove them wrong.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Twitter @bhertzel.

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