By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The first thing you notice is the hair, hanging out of the helmet, long dreads flopping from side to side as he runs.
It is trademark, these dreadlocks that belong to Bruce Irvin, but it is so much more than that.
It is his lifeline to the NFL.
Bruce Irvin, you see, pictures himself as something of a modern day Sampson. Ask him if his explosiveness and strength comes from his family, and this is the answer you get:
“I think it’s my hair. A lot of my strength comes from my hair. It’s not my family. My mom is 5-6, my dad is 5-6, my little brother is 5-11. I’m the biggest dude,” he said.
Ah, but that hair, that long face that often breaks into a wide, easy smile, that quickness and speed and explosiveness, all of that defines Bruce Irvin as a football player, the one who will come into this next season as the nation’s leading returnee in sacks with 14.
And remember, he didn’t even start last year.
True, he is undersized and underappreciated.
Take Phil Steele, for example, a man who puts out one of the most respected preseason football guides in the nation, one that has far more information than any other.
Phil Steele knows about the sacks. He also knows that Irvin is small as defensive ends go.
Ergo, he ranked him 38th among defensive ends in the nation.
This was brought up to Irvin during summer interviews the other day.
“Oh, man, I don’t understand. I don’t understand Phil Steele, man. I don’t know. What, 38? Where those other 37 at? I don’t understand,” he said, shaking his head, the dreads swishing from one side to the other. “I mean, nothing against Phil Steele. That’s his opinion.”
So, someone asked, where would he rank himself?
Bruce Irvin thought for a minute, then said: “I say I’m 1-A, Julian (Miller, the other side lineman at WVU) is 1-B.”
That may sound bragadocious, but it just may be correct, for Miller last year complemented Irvin’s 14 sacks with nine of his own.
Irvin readily admits that he is undersized when it comes to defensive ends, but he becomes downright insulted when you say he’s undersized at 235 pounds.
“First off,” he said, “I’m not 235. I’m about 239, before the workout. I probably sweated two pounds off, so I’m probably 237, but I’m going to eat a nice dinner, and I’ll be back to 239 or 240 in about 15 minutes.”
In this game, size doesn’t matter, he says.
“I’m a bit undersized, but if I’m off the ball before you get out of your stance, what are you going to do? It’s about penetration and leverage. I get off the ball quick,” he said. “It makes me work harder. I’m ready to prove them wrong.”
That, after all, is something he has specialized in. His life has hardly been lived on Easy Street.
A recent profile on Rivals.com by Steve Megargee was the first to really delve into his past, a past that saw him fail
to graduate from high school, where he played only two games into his sophomore year, run-ins with the law due to hanging out with the wrong people and a battle to find a junior college to take him.
“It’s crazy, man,” Irvin told Megargee. “It’s very rare that you can come from the situation I came from and to be where I am today.”
He got his chance at Mt. San Antonio Junior College in Walnut, Calif., just outside Los Angeles, from defensive coordinator Iona Uiagalelei.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, a free safety that big, you can’t turn that down,’” Uiagalelei told Rivals. “He emailed his profile, and I see this picture of him. He’s standing straight up, and I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s a beast. We’ve got to get him.’”
First they got him, then five games into the season they moved him to defensive end.
He first committed to Tennessee but left when Lane Kifflin headed out to USC, changed his commitment to Arizona State but eventually was won over at WVU by former assistant Lonnie Galloway, whom he had a long-term relationship with, and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.
A year ago, he gave what was a great WVU defense a boost as a pass-rusher but could not play every down because he arrived too late to full grasp Casteel’s tricky 3-3-5 defense.
“I came in June, the last five weeks before camp,” he said. “The 3-3-5 is not a workout you learn real fast.”
Now he knows the defense and will play every down, giving WVU a tremendous pass-rushing duo with Miller if they can handle the pounding that will come at them out of the running game.
“They are going to have to deal with me, as well as Julian,” Irvin said. “I’m sure Marshall will deal with me with a tight end or chip me with a back. I tell Julian, ‘You’ve got to get off.’ If he gets off to a fast start, they’ll be thinking, ‘Dang, we’ve got to deal with him, too.’ Everybody knows about me, but they kind of forget about Julian and he had like nine sacks in each of the last two years.
“Everything will be OK once he starts going off. We’ll start getting free and making plays.”
Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail. Tweet @bhertzel.