The fall camp depth chart showed Isaiah Bruce as the second-stringer to Doug Rigg at Sam linebacker. But for two weeks preceding the season opener, Bruce had an inclination that he was no backup.
"We had been doing a lot of rotating, and then they started playing me with the ones a lot and I hadn’t subbing out much," Bruce said. "So I kind of figured I might be starting."
Alas, on Saturday’s opening series against Marshall, there was the redshirt freshman Bruce lined up beside Rigg, who had shifted to Will linebacker, the other inside position.
And seven snaps into his college career, after Marshall moved to midfield, there was Bruce effectively killing the drive by dropping Herd running back Travon Van for an 8-yard loss.
The play launched a dazzling debut for Bruce: 16 tackles, a 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown and, as of Tuesday, a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week award.
Though Bruce sensed he did a good job pursuing the ball on almost every play of WVU’s 69-34 victory, he was staggered to see his postgame stat sheet.
"You don’t really think about (how many tackles you have) during the game," he said. "It’s not like, ‘Oh, got another one.’"
Back in the locker room, he scrolled through a stream of congratulatory text messages from family members and high school friends. Yet Bruce’s enthusiasm was tempered by the realization he could have played better. He misread his keys on several plays, including reacting wrongly to Marshall’s pulling guard on a couple instances.
"And he had five missed tackles," said linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson on Tuesday. "So he should have had 21 tackles. Now, that would’ve been a pretty good first start."
Though Patterson said he rides Bruce daily about his tackling, the coach could hardly hide his giddiness over what he saw in Week 1.
"He has definitely earned my trust because he’s such a worker," Patterson said. "He’s typically in position, and he has tried to gain an understanding of what we’re doing. And I’ve tried to strain him mentally and physically to become a tough-mindset linebacker."
The best evidence of that came late in the first quarter, with Marshall starting a drive from its own 2-yard line.
"(Marshall) tried to run the Iso out of the end zone, and (Bruce) knocked their fullback 3 yards deep into their backfield and got in on the tackle," Patterson said.
"To see (the practice reps) carry over to that first game gave him a lot of confidence."
Head coach Dana Holgorsen was struck by Bruce’s "tremendous conditioning" and ball-hawking persistence throughout an afternoon when Marshall ran 101 plays.
"I didn’t know if he could do it for four quarters, but he did," Holgorsen said. "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. We need to get some older guys to do that consistent."
Holgorsen appreciated Bruce’s serious approach to a preseason meeting when WVU brought in officials to counsel players on rules.
"He raised his hand three or four times and was asking questions," Holgorsen said. "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."
Tackling the bye week
The Mountaineers defensive staff suggested poor tackling, and not misalignments, were to blame for the unit allowing 545 yards to Marshall.
"You can’t emulate (tackling) in practice, because you’re dying to protect your team, especially in fall camp," Patterson said. "We tackle and we do some live situations, but it’s almost like you have to play your way into being a great tackling team."
With a bye week leading up to games against FCS member James Madison and Maryland, there’s time to address the issue. Even after what he described as a physical preseason, Holgorsen said he expected some Week 1 struggles.
"In situational scrimmages, we probably tackled more than anywhere I’ve ever been," he said. "We remained healthy, we tackled good and practiced well together, but it’s still different on gameday. It’s especially different when you have about 14 freshmen out there.
"Those guys have never tackled in a college football game. It’s one thing that should improve, and if it doesn’t we won’t be very good defensively."