ALAMEDA, Calif. -- You could say these are bright times for Bruce Irvin, who has had his share of dark days in his life.
Since the end of last season, he has earned a degree, becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college, made a much-desired position switch from outside linebacker to defensive end and maybe, just maybe, found a kindred spirit in returning Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden.
“He talks s--- like I talk s---, so we get along,” Irvin said.
Irvin came to Oakland as a free agent in 2016 after four star-crossed seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, which included an eight-sack rookie season, a Super Bowl championship and another trip to the Super Bowl.
Initially an edge-rusher, Irvin made the switch to outside linebacker despite his concerns that he was not “smart enough” to play in coverages. Ken Norton Jr., then his position coach in Seattle and later his defensive coordinator in Oakland, admonished his pupil, telling him to never admit such a thing.
Besides, Norton told Irvin, he was capable of playing linebacker.
The Raiders were obviously impressed enough to sign Irvin to a four-year deal worth a max of $37 million and $12.5 million fully guaranteed to make him a bookend pass-rusher with All-Pro Khalil Mack.
Irvin’s presence helped Mack become the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 as Oakland went 12-4 and appeared in the postseason for the first time since the 2002 season.
The team regressed badly under Jack Del Rio in 2017, going 6-10 before Del Rio was shown the door. Gruden agreed to return to Oakland with an eye on Irvin and his skill set.
Enter new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who worked Irvin out at West Virginia and wanted the Cincinnati Bengals to draft him before the Seahawks struck at No. 15 overall in 2012.
“I knew he was a really gifted rusher,” Guenther said. “... Just coming here, I thought his best assets for us was to go forward rather than go backwards. He’s done a good job with what we’re asking him to do in the base fronts.
“Obviously, we know what he can do as a pass-rusher. Hopefully, we can get him over a double-digit [sack] mark this year. That’s the goal for him.”
The 6-feet-3, 260-pound Irvin had seven sacks his first year in Oakland, including a memorable strip sack of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the season opener. He followed that up with eight sacks in 2017.
Per Pro Football Focus data, Irvin was just a “part-time” rusher last season, and his 40 total pressures still ranked 14th among all NFL linebackers.
And as an edge defender, Irvin ranked 15th with 33 defensive stops, per PFF data.
The Raiders are now looking for even more production from a more comfortable Irvin, and he is looking forward to producing -- both in the football game and in the trash-talking game.
“You can ask anybody in the locker room, they’ll tell you I talk smack; it’s what I do,” Irvin said. “There’s no hard feelings, but you’re going to hear me.”
That’s where the ultra-intense Gruden comes in.
“We’ve got a great relationship. He speaks his mind, I speak my mind. I come to work, he comes to work,” Irvin said. “You couldn’t ask to work with a [better] person like that. A guy who is football, football, football. That’s all it’s about -- winning and football. That’s the type of coach you want in the building.”
No matter how many accolades and atta-boys Irvin might garner on the field, nothing will compare to that sociology degree he just received from West Virginia.
And Gruden agrees.
“That’s a great success story, and it just goes to show you you can’t judge a man’s character just because he’s made a mistake when he’s 21 or 22 years old,” Gruden said. “You have to try to create an environment where people can flourish. Young people can develop and mature and become great. Bruce Irvin is a great example of that. He was surrounded with greatness in Seattle. He was put in a channel of success and he took advantage of it. Hopefully, we can provide that for some people down the road.”
For Irvin, who came from troubled childhood in which he had a short stint in jail as a teenager for burglarizing a house, was kicked out of his own home and lived in a drug house, then had to serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, it all makes for a cautionary tale. He is more than happy to share his testimony. West Virginia has credited his community work. Irvin was the Raiders’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award last season.
“Being the situation I came from, since I dropped out and got my GED, the odds were stacked up against me to get my bachelor’s degree,” he said. “It was a surreal moment. I kind of put it up there with the Super Bowl, neck and neck.”
Irvin wanted to let his now-5-year-old son, Brayden, know his father is more than a professional athlete.
“When kids come up to him, they can say that his dad was a good football player, and he can stop them and say, 'He was a good football player, but he also got his associate’s degree, got his bachelor’s degree. He wasn’t only a football player. He put education up there right along with his job.'
“It was bigger than me. It was for my son and his kids and generations after me.”
Irvin insists the dark days are behind him, when his alter ego, “B.J.,” ran his life. Now, he says, he is just Bruce. And Bruce is another veteran whom Gruden can count on.
“Like I said, guys can learn from me, it’s never too late,” Irvin said. “You can mess up, but just get the right people around you, surround yourself with the right people, and it’ll take care of itself.”