MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The Keith Patterson so soft-mannered during interview sessions, so patient with questions about 2012’s defensive calamity, gives way to a fiery, hollering linebacker coach on the practice field.
“I’m not running a happiness camp,” Patterson explained after a recent practice, returning to his subdued persona.
“My wife’s always asking me, ‘Why do you holler at them all the time?’ Well, I’m not hollering, I’m coaching them. It’s football. It’s a tough sport for tough people. You can’t have a soft linebacker coach, and you can’t have soft linebackers. Offensive lineman are 6-foot-6, 330 pounds, so you’ve got to be tough.”
And Patterson is toughest on his best linebacker, Isaiah Bruce, who produced an encouraging freshman season for a defense that frequently was discouraged. From a backup entering fall camp to an opening-day starter at the Sam position, Bruce’s 94 tackles led the linebackers and were second-most on the team.
“I want him to raise his standard, because guess what? Last year wasn’t good enough,” Patterson said. “I tell him ‘You had a great year but you didn’t finish.'”
“I’m probably harder on Isaiah than anybody. What happens a lot of times is you come in there and have that great freshman year and then comes that sophomore slump. It kind of happened to me as a player, so I try to guard against that.” — Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson
A high school hurdles champion, Bruce was explosive and seemingly always around the football for much of the season before turning quiet during WVU’s final three games. A lower leg injury suffered in Week 10 against Oklahoma contributed to the slow finish, as did Patterson’s over reliance on Bruce in early games.
“I probably played him too many snaps,” Patterson said, “because he got beat down and lost a step.”
Bruce made only three assists and zero solo tackles during the final two regular-season wins against Iowa State and Kansas. Playing on rested legs in the Pinstripe Bowl, he was slightly more impactful (two solos, three assists), though nowhere near early-season form.
“It definitely was some wear and tear, but that’s how it’s going to be with any player,” Bruce said Tuesday night, reluctant to employ minor injuries as an excuse for the falloff.
Looking beefier after adding 10 pounds during winter workouts, Bruce is embracing Patterson’s daily challenges in hopes of putting together a complete season. A key component of that involves reining in his reckless tendencies and playing with more discipline.
“I tend to get in other people’s gaps or try to run somebody else’s coverage,” Bruce said. “It puts me in a bind and that’s when coaches light into me.”
“Like sometimes when I technically don’t have a gap, but the nose and end are taking up the A and B gap. I see the running back about to run in that gap, so I try to run there but he ends up cutting out into where I was supposed to be. I know he’s going to cutback when Shaq and Will are taking up their gaps. I just need to work on being patient.”
On a defense that returns eight starters, a healthy, patient Bruce could be a dynamic force. It’s up to Patterson — the loud, demanding version — to coax it out of him.
“He is my coach and he is trying to make me the best player I can be,” Bruce said. “They say you should worry when they stop yelling at you because then they pretty much don’t want to deal with you anymore.”