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September 5, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Bruce off to flying start at LB

MORGANTOWN — It should not be very long, despite the fact that West Virginia University has this week off after its annihilation of Marshall, 69-34, last Saturday, before a familiar chant starts filling Milan Puskar Stadium.

“BRUCE! BRUCE!” they seem sure to be shouting, just as they did these past two years for Bruce Irvin, whose defensive heroics led him into the NFL via the first round of this year’s draft.

These, though, will not be leftover echoes of days gone by, but of a new era, the era of Isaiah Bruce, redshirt freshman who did not play last season but who in one game this year has established himself as the heartbeat of this year’s defense.

When the Big 12 got around to handing out its weekly honors for this weekend’s football, as expected by everyone from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa, Geno Smith took down the offensive award, but Isaiah Bruce Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week?

Could that be in a league where Texas is supposed to have maybe the nation’s best defense and where Oklahoma even has a defensive scheme named after it, to say nothing of a Broadway musical, an unknown freshman playing his first game could win the award?

It could be and was.

Bruce picked up a fumble and toted it 43 yards to a third-quarter touchdown as the highlight of his first collegiate game, but almost as eye-popping were the game-high 16 tackles he recorded, seven of them by his lonesome self and one of them for an 8-yard loss.

Oh, there was some freshmanitis on display, even in this performance, as his coach, Gary Patterson, would note.

“He missed five tackles. I mean, he could have had 21 tackles,” Patterson said.

In some ways, Bruce’s performance surprised his head coach Dana Holgorsen, who prefers to see what people do in games before making judgments.

“He practiced well in spurts,” Holgorsen said. “I didn’t know if he could do it for four quarters, but he did, and he has tremendous conditioning. Not everybody looked the same in the fourth quarter as they did in the first quarter, but he looked like he was doing the same stuff consistently for four quarters.”

Fine, but why is he able to do that when others may not be? True, he has the physical equipment at 6-1 and 225, but certainly he is not a freak of nature.

So you ask his coaches what there is in him as a person and you get different answers from each of them.

“He’s a smart kid,” said Holgorsen.

He then offered up exactly what he meant by that.

“When the referees were in here going over all of the rules, he raised his hand three or four times and was asking questions,” he said, knowing that most freshmen sit there silently.

OK, he’s smart and is not afraid to ask questions in front of his teammates.

“It’s his work ethic,” Patterson offered up. “Every single day ... he’s not way up here one day and down here the next. Every day he brings the same attitude and effort it takes to be a great player. He studies it. He wants to get better. It’s all about his attitude. He was that way all spring and was that way all camp.”

So Bruce is smart and tireless and has a great work ethic ... and?

“He was able to do it because he’s a humble kid, but more importantly it means a lot to him. He studies tape, and he gets treatment when he should. He does all the intangible things to make him a good player and it showed up on Saturday,” said defensive coordinator Joe DeForest.

Now we’re getting a picture of a smart kid with a great work ethic who is humble and cares greatly while paying attention to the intangibles.

If that sounds perfect, and those 16 tackles and the fumble recovery might indicate that he is, all the coaches assure you that Isaiah Bruce is still a freshman with one collegiate football game under his belt and that he is very much an unfinished product.

“He will tell you, I’m on him daily about his tackling,” Patterson said. “He’s a young kid who is going to get better with strength and as he matures.”

“By no means has he arrived, but he has shown we can count on him. Hopefully, he will continue to improve each game,” added DeForest.

“He’s a smart kid. His conditioning is good, and it was a pleasant surprise, but he, along with everybody else, has a whole lot to work on,” said Holgorsen, summing it up.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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