MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Having slipped from freshman All-American to senior third-stringer, Isaiah Bruce wasn’t content to ride out his college career as a bystander.
The linebacker, essentially neutralized when West Virginia shifted to the 3-3-5 scheme in 2014, was buried behind senior Nick Kwiatkoski and sophomore Xavier Preston on the depth chart.
So in early October, he searched out defensive coordinator Tony Gibson to plant a seed about moving to defensive end.
“I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to, so I kind of jokingly but not jokingly asked Gibby when he was going to put me on the edge and let me bring pressure,” Bruce said. “He put me out there in practice and I ended up making a few good plays.”
Against TCU, Bruce jumped into the nickel package, playing several third-downs in a 40-10 loss. Undersized for a defensive end at 6-1, 240 pounds, the linebacker’s speed has helped him acclimate.
“His quickness will allow him to get out of trouble,” said defensive line coach Bruce Tall, suggesting Bruce has progressed past being a situational insert. “We’ve been able to put him in the complete package. He understands all the techniques in any scheme, so we can put him in any down.”
After playing alongside Bruce at linebacker for four years—including 2012 when Bruce made 94 tackles and seemed destined for takeoff—Jared Barber called the move inspiring.
“Isaiah never was satisfied with ‘Aw, well, look what’s in front of me. I’m never going to play.’ He worked his butt off and now he’s playing at a different position.”
Whereas Bruce once scoped out traffic from a stand-up position on the second level, he’s learning now that his new position requires fewer keys and less to process.
That’s a relief, because the physical matchups are a different breed of bulk. Bruce worked against 315-pound TCU left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai last week and is now prepping for another 6-foot-6 behemoth, Texas Tech’s Le”Raven Clark.
“They’re huge,” said Bruce, “and when they get help from the guards it’s not fun either.”
Gibson, desperate for any hint of a pass rush with West Virginia ranking 88th nationally in sacks, saw enough from Bruce to make the move permanent.
“That’s where he’s going to finish out,” Gibson said Tuesday. “We think he can hold up and give us that extra speed we need up front. Hopefully we’ll get to use him a lot these next five games and get a lot out of him.”