Long before he got to West Virginia, Bruce Irvin knew he had the talent to be a big-time football player.
He didn't envision himself as one of the nation's top sack artists, seeing as how he had never played defensive end until two years ago. But he knew he had elite athleticism.
It was just getting to West Virginia -- or any college -- that was the hard part for Irvin.
He took a circuitous route to his current cult status among the Mountaineer faithful. Irvin never graduated high school, walked on to a junior college team and ended up rushing quarterbacks almost by accident. A very happy accident, as it turns out.
"Bruce is a freaky player," West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith said. "He's 6-foot-2, all the measurables you want, and then he's running like a 4.3 [second time in the 40-yard dash]. He's a matchup nightmare for any offensive tackle. I'm just glad he's on my side."
Irvin was on the wrong path during his high school days outside of Atlanta. He starred as a wide receiver, but after just three games his sophomore year, he was ruled academically ineligible. Without the structure of football, he went into a downward spiral. He spent too much time on the streets. He dropped out of school. He even did a brief stint in jail as a juvenile.
"I was hanging with the wrong crowd," said Irvin, whose only comment on his arrest was that it was "somewhat serious." "One day, I finally woke up and realized that in five years I didn't want to be doing this same thing. God blessed me with talent, and I didn't want to waste it.
"Luckily, I saw the light before it was too late."
Irvin earned his GED in December 2007. Though he'd been out of the game for two years, he knew he could pick it right back up. Family and friends used to call him "Awesome Irvin" in his younger days.
"Whenever I played," he said, "I dominated."
He decided to get away from the troubles of home and try the only real option for a guy with a GED: the junior college ranks. He attempted to walk on to Butler Community College in Kansas but didn't make it. So he kept going farther West, landing at traditional two-year power Mt. San Antonio in California.
He played safety his first year, then the coaches gave the then-215-pounder a look at defensive end.
"I was fast so they told me to just put my hand in the dirt and go get the quarterback," he said. "That was the best move I could have ever made."
Irvin registered 16 sacks on a national championship team and became a highly-coveted recruit. He originally committed to Tennessee, then changed his mind after Lane Kiffin left. He rescinded another commitment to Arizona State. He kept in touch with West Virginia receivers coach Lonnie Galloway, who he had met several years earlier in high school.
"I just felt like West Virginia needed me as much as I needed them," he said. "Being a juco guy, I had to go some place where I fit. At West Virginia, I was like the perfect piece to the puzzle."
And how. Irvin gave the Mountaineers a true pass-rushing force that they had lacked. His 12 sacks lead the Big East and rank fourth in the nation. What's most impressive about that is Irvin does his damage in limited opportunities. He comes in for the team's "40" package on obvious passing downs and rarely sees the field before third down. He has only seven tackles that aren't sacks.
But when he's in the game, other teams have to alter their entire approach.
"I usually have the tackle and guard doubling me, and sometimes they leave a back in to chip me, too," he said.
Irvin's burst off the line and natural instincts make him incredibly difficult to stop, even though he weighs only 235 pounds. He hopes to get into the 240 range next year and become an every-down player who's capable of staying strong against the run.
He could play a key role in Tuesday's Champs Sports Bowl against NC State. The Mountaineers could use his speed to chase down mobile quarterback Russell Wilson, and they may look to blitz more with top cornerback Brandon Hogan sidelined with an injury.
Irvin always knew he could get to this level. Just not quite the way he did it.
"He realized what was important to him and he went for it," says his mother, Bessie. "Every time I see him sacking the quarterback, I say, 'Lord, thank you!' It's amazing how somebody can be so talented and turn his life around."