Freshmen contributing in major way for No. 9 WVU
MORGANTOWN -- Linebacker Isaiah Bruce and 18 other players who got their first snaps for No. 9 West Virginia survived their college debuts. After a week off to soak in the experience, they now get to ponder the next challenge -- their first road game.
Proving themselves each week is the only way to remain on the field. Second-year coach Dana Holgorsen wants to beef up the number of players he uses as the Mountaineers prepare for their first season in the Big 12.
Sixteen of the first-time players in the opener were redshirt or true freshmen. Bruce and safety Karl Joseph were the only freshmen among the five new starters.
"That's exciting as a head coach, to see a whole bunch of new people contributing," Holgorsen said. "But I don't care if they're freshmen or if they're seniors. We need guys that we can count on."
Bruce was certainly the most impressive of the newbies. He had 16 tackles and returned a fumble 43 yards for a touchdown in the 69-34 win over Marshall.
Crash course No. 2 comes Saturday when West Virginia (1-0) plays James Madison (2-0) of the Championship Subdivision in Landover, Md.
"You can always improve at anything you do," Bruce said. "Coaches like to say it's never good enough. No matter what you do, you can always do better. The first game felt pretty good, but we're just focused on JMU now. We've got to keep up the energy, keep up the pursuit. And we've got to make sure we finish the game."
Heading into the season, Holgorsen wasn't exactly sure how his freshmen would handle the speed, physical nature and pressure of a game.
"Who knows what's going on in these 18-year old kids' heads?" Holgorsen said. "But you need to be aware of how they are. You've got to look at their eyes on the sidelines when they come off. If they're wide-eyed, and looking up in the stands, you have to slap them around a little bit, get their attention and get them focused on what really matters."
A dozen of the first-time players were on defense, and what matters on Saturday is helping stop a James Madison offense averaging nearly 49 points a game.
Bruce's performance earned him Big 12 defensive player of the week honors and praise from his coaches.
"He had practiced well in spurts," Holgorsen said. "I just didn't know if he could do it for four quarters. He did. He's got tremendous conditioning."
Bruce was a state champion in the 300-meter hurdles his senior year at Providence School in Jacksonville, Fla.
"He has great size and athleticism for a linebacker, especially in today's game," said WVU linebackers coach Keith Patterson. "He's able to run 20 or 30 yards and make plays in space."
Joseph, who earned the starting free-safety job in fall camp, had seven tackles in his first college game, including two stops for a loss.
"I was expecting to get nervous, but I didn't," Joseph said. "There's no real difference for me this week, just different color jerseys."
West Virginia's defense allowed 545 yards to Marshall and the coaching staff has indicated that roster moves are possible, including more playing time for backup defensive lineman Kyle Rose and cornerback Nana Kyeremeh, both freshmen.
"The young guys are getting into the flow of things," said junior linebacker Doug Rigg. "They started to see how the game really is. Hopefully, that should carry on each week and things get better."