Sunday was a long and frustrating day. I was expecting to watch West Virginia vs Marshall, but ESPN were showing baseball and would join the game in progress at the conclusion of Philadelphia vs Florida. After four extra innings – seven consecutive with no runs – and a lengthy, boring debate about fan interference, the game was finally concluded some 2.5 hours after it was supposed to. It was already the second half in the WVU game and by the time they finally crossed over – an extreme thunder storm broke out and forced a delay and eventual abandonment.
I had to be up at 5am the next day, I’d stayed up two hours longer than I should’ve done to finally see something – anything – from the WVU game and when the Marlins finally won (on a bases-loaded walk no less) there were merely scenes of an empty football stadium accompanied by a swiftly arranged diversion to talk about Nascar to fill time.
Thankfully the game was broadcast again the next day on replay so I was able to finally sit down and take a look at what restricted action occurred. My main focus was Mountaineers pass rush specialist and JUCO transfer Bruce Irvin, who recorded 14 sacks last year playing predominantly third downs. This season he’s set for an expanded role, although he started the Marshall game again receiving limited snaps. Eventually he began to appear regularly, mixing between three man fronts or RE in a four man defensive line.
I’m a big fan of Bruce and think he’s got legitimate pro-potential, but I wasn’t particularly enamoured with his display here. It’s not entirely his fault. For starters, I have no idea why WVU were using him in a three man front in what must be the lightest five technique to ever grace the game. This is a player who may be too light at 240-250lbs to play outside linebacker in a 3-4, yet the coaches at West Virginia have him playing on a line of three? There were times when Irvin was getting double and triple teamed simply as a more orthodox 4-3 end, so putting him on a line of three easily enabled Marshall to stick a tackle, guard and tight end/running back on his side without any real added consideration.
The main reason for my optimism going into the season was the relative strength of a player Irvin’s size. He didn’t get blown up too often and he flashed occasional power that belittled his frame. He did a good job with his hands to disengage and found ways to get into the backfield. At the same time you couldn’t ignore his limited role and ‘surprise’ element coming off the bench on third downs, so I wanted to see if he could maintain that same explosive level on a longer shift.
I think it’s fair to say I have more reservations today then I did last season. The speed and instinct is still there, as is the repertoire. However, there were several occasions where he couldn’t disengage a standard college right tackle. When playing as part of a three man front, he might as well have not been there on rushing downs because he just doesn’t have the size to fill the hole. One big run for Marshall was purely down to a very simple block on Irvin to the left side of the line, creating a huge wide open space for the running back. The big problem given his lack of size is clearly run defense and although he is stronger than his frame suggests, I’m not sure you can justify even using him consistently at the LEO position on a full-time basis.
Can he work out at OLB? It’s too hard to tell considering he doesn’t ever play that role at WVU (surprisingly) even in 3-4 sets. He’d have to learn coverage duties and for a player who needs to pin his ears back and rush the passer, his stock is going to be limited.
I want to push Bruce Irvin’s stock as high as possible, but it may be time for me to temper those expectations. As a pass rush specialist playing third downs, he could have a nice career in the NFL and enjoy some success. However, he’s never going to be that every down big-time threat. His best position probably is LEO pass rusher, but as part of a consistent rotation. We’ll see if he can change that perception during the season. Even if that doesn’t prove to be the case, he’s one of the most fun players to watch in college football and you can’t ignore 14 sacks last season and one already against Marshall to start the new term.