Bruce, a second-year linebacker slated to man the Will slot, has played in a 4-3, 5-2 and various versions of a 3-3 and WVU’s now-utilized 3-4. The redshirt freshman actually chose West Virginia partially because of its odd stack set, a 3-3 look that suffocated the run and typified the bend-don’t-break approach to the pass.
But that suffocation term, the one Bruce liked and though he would be employing on foes, was as apt a description of how he felt in his first year.
“I felt like I couldn’t move, couldn’t run as well,” the 6-1, 226-pounder said. “This was a different 3-3 than I had run. It was a lot more ‘in-your-face, you gotta do this, hit this gap, fill it now and do it a certain way.’ I like (the 3-4) process a little bit better. We get to be more patient and see more instead of going downhill and trying to hit a 300-pound lineman and fill a gap and make a new line of scrimmage.”
That newly formed scrimmage line was a major puzzle piece for former coordinator Jeff Casteel, who valued gap fit-up and rugged, assignment football based on corralling the run – leveraging the ball – and controlling horizontal play. It worked effectively against the physical, run-first Big East members. But it also worked against linebackers at times, in that a 220-pound player was often mashing heads with a 320-pound lineman. After awhile, as current Mountaineer assistant head coach Steve Dunlap noted when he was WVU’s coordinator, “it gives those players a headache.”
Bruce had one, a mix of being away from home, from a strange defense and stranger coaches. He eventually called Dave Johnson, the former Mountaineer assistant who recruited him, and inquired about what, indeed, his future could hold in Morgantown. Johnson, stand-up person he is, assured him the best fit for him was West Virginia, and Bruce stuck.
“It was a good decision,” he said.
Enter defensive coordinator and turnover guru Joe DeForest and co-DC Keith Patterson, he of the third-rated Pitt defense that stifled West Virginia last season, and suddenly there seems less an emphasis on pure assignment football and more focus on Bruce’s love, the old backyard ideals of read-and-react, see-ball, get-ball.
“They say have a short-term memory. But it’s hard to have a short-term memory if you keep getting yelled at about what you did wrong,” Bruce said. “This staff, they tell you and move on. That works better for me than telling me what I did wrong again and again. There’s freedom. I feel like I can move a lot better in this defense. It’s more free.”
Which isn’t to imply a free-for-all. Like any endeavor, playing a musical instrument, movie production, architecture, writing, high-level athletics, one is only free to truly create at a high level when one grasps and executes fundamentals. Icarus comes to mind. Feel free to fly; keep in mind what it is that enables it and obstacles to such.
“We have our base coverage in the run,” Bruce said. “But it’s not ‘Run, get downhill and fill.’ It’s ‘Make sure it’s a run’ and notice what’s around you and what’s happening. ‘Go make a play.’
“The old defense, when the ball is hiked, I had my gap and I forgot about what they might be doing and just got to my gap and forced a new line of scrimmage. Now, with the new defense, the line does a lot of angles and they take up some areas. I am free to not just go right behind them, but fill in opposite gaps and see what they are doing better.”
And, when the play’s made, fight and claw for turnovers.
“It’s everybody to the ball. This goes to linemen, too,” Bruce said. “Once the ball is thrown, everybody is going to the ball even if you’re by the quarterback. A lot of turnovers happen from behind the runner. Everybody hits and goes for the ball. It’s effort and getting to the ball to create turnovers.
“I think it’s more fun to play for the new group. They are a lot younger and they get more excited for plays. They want you to do well. They want us to get excited. Everybody has more fun. It’s more enjoyable and not just ‘go get this done.’ Dana is all about getting the work done. It’s work, then fun. But if you can have fun while still being productive, then that’s good and everybody is having a good time while doing their job. I feel more fresh physically and mentally. This staff is all about what you can do to create better results.”