By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Bruce Irvin is hungry.
Not for breakfast, not for lunch and not for dinner.
He’s hankerin’ for a quarterback.
In fact, when asked when was the last time he had laid hands on a quarterback, he had to stop and think.
“N.C. State,” he finally answered, having had to go through spring and summer since that bowl loss only pretending to chase down quarterbacks the way he did last year when he was a third-down specialist out of his defensive end post and delivered 14 sacks.
Did he think it might take him a while when the West Virginian Mountaineers open against Marshall at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in Milan Puskar Stadium to get that old feeling back?
“Nah,” he said. “Once you see another color jersey on the other side of the ball, it gets you going real quick.”
It better, because this is a new-look defensive line from the one that was among the nation’s best a year ago and led the defense into a No. 3 ranking that WVU is putting on the field this year.
“Totally different,” said the veteran defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich, preparing for his 33rd opening day at WVU. “The season will dictate how different we play. The coaching stays the same. It’s still a leverage game; it’s still a pad-to-pad game and they have to understand that.”
But this is a defense without Chris Neild on the nose and with Irvin playing full-time at end rather than third down.
Some say that this line, with Julian Miller at tackle weighing in at 270 pounds, Jorge Wright at the nose and weighing 290 and Irvin playing at 240 is too light to be anywhere near the line they had a year ago.
“People are going to say what they are going to say,” Irvin said. “We are on the lighter side than last year but we’re faster … much, much faster than last year. People will say what they want; it’s up to us to prove them wrong.”
And Irvin is going to be key, for there is concern that this undersized third-down specialist from a year ago may lose some of his pass rushing effectiveness from playing first and second down, too.
That can’t happen.
“Our ace in the hole is Irvin on third down,” Kirelawich said. “I don’t want to wear him out. When I need him the most, I don’t want him out of gas.”
Because of that, young Will Clarke, a 6-6, 240 defensive end will play … not that Kirelawich has any reservations about his ability to do the job.
“I really like Will Clarke. I think he can be the next Neild – not a nose guard, but a great lineman – because he’s a worker. He can be that type of guy, a guy who shows up as a football player,” Kirelawich said.
As for Irvin, who became a fan hero as the faithful would shout “Bruce, Bruce, Bruce” whenever he made a sack, he believes he’s up to playing full time.
“I don’t think I’ll wear down,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been preparing for the whole summer. When it’s third down, you have to get off the field. You have to pin your ears back and go get it. That will drive me. I still have the same drive and hunger I had last year on third down.”
Miller, who had 10 sacks himself last season, is something of a question coming into the season. He spent most of the past two weeks limping around on a sprained ankle, putting in question if he is in football shape right away.
He says don’t worry about it.
“Tough players play through tough things, especially in big games. This is Marshall. Being a senior, it’s a big game and I don’t want to miss it,” he said.
That brings us to Wright, whose year got off an awful start when everyone was stunned as he was arrested during a traffic stop after a small amount of marijuana and a firearm was reportedly found in the car he was driving.
It is something he doesn’t talk about, the case still pending and Marshall on the horizon.
“I mean, I’m just here to focus on Marshall,” he said. “Football is my sport. Besides school, that’s all I want to think about. I want to get better as a football player.”
Replacing Neild is no easy task, and he knows it.
“I think I worked very hard this off-season. There were some issues I had to work on, getting my weight to where I wanted it to be consistent, getting stronger and faster,” he said.
He was certainly smart enough to take advantage of having Neild around for a good part of the summer.
“He was here when we were training, and he gave me a few pointers about things here and there, things I wouldn’t have known without asking,” he said. “I watch film on him all the time. He was an amazing nose guard, and now he’s an NFL nose guard. Anything I can take from him and incorporate into my game I will.”
He is going to have to, for 290 is small for a nose guard and comparisons to Neild are unfair.
“I can never be Chris Neild. I have to be Jorge. I have to just concentrate on being better,” he said.
“He’s a lot different than Chris Neild, but he has a lot of ability,” Kirelawich said. “My job is to get him to think he has a lot of ability and to use it. Is he as good as Chris Neild? No, but there are a lot of nose guards who aren’t as good as Chris Neild. I do think he has the potential to be as good, but he has to elevate his level. He has to push himself. It’s a maturation process.”
Why, one wondered, would anyone want to be a nose guard, which is a black-and -blue position from which very little in the way of glamor or glory is earned?
“That doesn’t bother me,” Wright said. “I don’t play to get my name out there. I just want to play and do whatever I can to help my team. I enjoy the contact, and I like playing football. There’s no way to play football without contact.”
The job this group does could well go a long way toward dictating the kind of season the Mountaineers have. Indeed, teams certainly will try to run clock off against coach Dana Holgorsen’s high-powered offense, so stopping the run becomes priority No. 1.
Then, the Holgorsen offense could grab some leads that will force teams into comeback mode, meaning they will be throwing the ball. That means that Irvin and Miller have to unleash a strong pass rush and turn opposing quarterbacks’ lives into nightmares.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.