The nation's top returning pass rusher didn't start a single game last season. But if you think that's the most surprising fact about West Virginia senior defensive end Bruce Irvin, you don't know the half of it.
The guy who recorded 14 sacks last season -- more than any other active FBS performer -- was a wide receiver in high school. That is, when he played at all: Irvin's high school football career ended after he appeared in only two games as a sophomore.
Irvin encountered some academic and legal trouble, and he never earned his high school diploma. He picked up a GED instead before turning his career around thousands of miles away from home at the second junior college he attended.
"It's crazy, man," Irvin says as he looks back on his unlikely journey. "It's very rare that you can come from the situation I came from and to be where I am today."
Irvin's rise to stardom is improbable in just about every respect. At 6 feet 3 and 235 pounds, he is undersized for a Division I defensive end. He was used primarily as a pass-rushing specialist last season and only now is moving into the starting lineup, yet he still has appeared on a number of preseason All-America teams.
"I'm not the biggest person, but I'm not the littlest person either," Irvin says. "When I see guys say 'he's too small' or 'he can't play the run,' it just makes me laugh and makes me work harder."
Irvin has every reason to laugh off the complaints about his lack of size. He already has overcome much larger obstacles.
Irvin spent his first couple of years in high school at Stockbridge (Ga.) High before transferring to Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson, a powerhouse program whose roster at the time included four future NFL players -- Seattle Seahawks running back Andre Anderson, New England Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, Washington Redskins linebacker Perry Riley and Buffalo Bills linebacker Kelvin Sheppard -- as well as 2006 Rivals100 prospect Marcus Ball.
Stephenson's coach says Irvin may have been the most talented of the bunch.
"He was probably the best athlete in the program, probably the best athlete in the school," Stephenson coach Ron Gartrell says. "I watched him on the football field and saw the things he could do on a basketball court, his strength. A lot of those guys were one-position guys. Bruce could have played anywhere."
But Irvin never played for Stephenson because of what Gartrell remembers as a mix-up in credit hours during his transfer. Irvin struggled in the classroom and also admits he ran into some trouble with the law, though he declines to go into specifics.
Irvin blames his situation on spending too much time with the wrong crowd. Then, when he saw all his classmates graduate from high school without him, he began to understand the wisdom of his mother's warnings.
"I told him the same kids who joke with you, they're going to laugh at you if you don't graduate," says Irvin's mother, Bessie Lee. "It made him realize what he needed to do to better himself."
Despite his problems, Irvin always believed he would play big-time college football. He knew he had the speed and the desire; all he needed was the discipline.
by the numbers
West Virginia's Bruce Irvin is the nation's leading returnee in sacks; he had 14 last season. Here's a look at other returning leaders in some key stat categories:
"I always knew I could do this," Irvin says. "It was just a matter of putting in the work. I never had a doubt in my mind I could play Division I football.
"I always knew I could, even when I was in high school and I wasn't playing. I just had to get away from the environment I was used to and the people I was used to."
First, he had to find somewhere to play. Irvin earned his GED late in 2007 and tried to walk-on at Butler (Kansas) Community College. He didn't last long at Butler, then moved on to Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb.
Mt. San Antonio defensive coordinator Iona Uiagalelei hadn't seen any tapes of Irvin, who had moved from wide receiver to free safety by this point. Irvin also was a bit rusty, as he hadn't played any organized football since his sophomore year of high school. Mt. San Antonio took a chance anyway because Uiagalelei was recruiting a friend of Irvin's who recommended him. Uiagalelei also was intrigued by Irvin's size.
"I'm thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, a free safety that big, you can't turn that down,' " Uiagalelei says. "He emailed his profile, and I see this picture of him. He's standing straight up, and I'm thinking, 'This guy's a beast. We've got to get him.' "
Irvin didn't have the coverage skills necessary to play free safety, but he was such an explosive athlete that Mt. San Antonio coaches knew they had to get him on the field somewhere.
Two days before Mt. San Antonio's fifth game of the season in 2008, Uiagalelei decided to experiment with Irvin at end. Irvin didn't know the defense all that well, and he often was lining up against tackles at least 50 pounds heavier. None of that mattered.
"He just did a move and it was like, 'Oh, my gosh, he's a natural,' " Uiagalelei said.
Irvin harassed quarterbacks for the rest of that season and really came into his own the following season. Irvin had 72 tackles and 16 sacks in 2009 while helping Mt. San Antonio win a national community college championship.
His time at Mt. San Antonio wasn't easy. Irvin said he lived in a two-bedroom apartment with eight teammates for much of his time there. But his on-field performance made him a four-star prospect.
"It was hard," Irvin says. "I was struggling, but I made it through."
Selecting a Division I school to attend proved equally difficult. Irvin initially committed to Tennessee but changed his mind after Lane Kiffin moved on to USC. He switched his commitment to Arizona State, only to eventually sign with West Virginia. Irvin had a longstanding relationship with West Virginia assistant Lonnie Galloway-- now the wide receivers coach at Wake Forest-- and liked what he heard from Mountaineers defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel during the recruiting process.
He wasted no time translating his pass-rushing skills to the Division I level. In his third game at WVU, Irvin had three sacks and forced a fumble in a 31-17 victory over Maryland. Irvin also came on strong down the stretch, with two sacks in four of his last six games. His 14 total sacks ranked him second nationally to Clemson's DaQuan Bowers, now a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Irvin basically maneuvered around Big East offensive tackles just as he had dominated junior college linemen. He showed the same pass-rushing skills that had first become evident on the Mt. San Antonio practice fields.
"When you see him play, he practices that same way," Uiagalelei says. "He brought that tenacity. That's the way he practiced. A lot of guys used to get upset with him. I'd say, 'Hey, why do you get upset? The reason he plays the way he does is because of the way he practices.'
"I never had to tell the guy to hustle or to run or to sprint. He used to always tell me, 'Coach, I don't have anything at home. This is everything. If this doesn't work, that's it.' I'd say, 'Well, you know what you have to do. You've got everything laid out for you. Let's go and get it done.' "
How much could Irvin's pass-rushing skills pay off for him? NFL scouts typically treasure any defensive linemen who can produce 14 sacks while playing in a major conference, but Irvin's lack of size and bulk could limit his pro potential. Although he has discussed getting up to 245 pounds for his senior season, that still would leave him about 20 pounds lighter than any of the defensive ends selected in the first round of the most recent NFL draft. Irvin might need to make one more position move in the pro ranks.
"He's going to have to change positions if he's going to have any kind of significant time in the NFL," says Rob Rang, a senior analyst for nfldraftscout.com. "He's most likely a 3-4 rush linebacker. ... Those statistics jump off the page, but he's very much a product of the role he was allowed to play. He doesn't necessarily translate to a guy who's going to go to the NFL and be this productive."
Irvin believes he can continue to work around his lack of size, but he also has prepared himself just in case. He no longer is banking his entire future on football. Irvin instead has used the sport to give himself a backup plan.
He may have once been foolish enough to blow his chance at a high school diploma, but Irvin says he now is working toward earning his college degree in December. Irvin jokes that his mother probably will faint the day he graduates.
"Words can't express it," Lee says. "I'm not going to lie. When I hear about that, I continue to say I give God the glory because that boy has come a long way. I'm so proud of him, so proud.
"I don't even know the words to say how proud I am of that boy, after what he's been through."