A consensus All-American, Irving will be missed, but State has a plan to try and replace him.
"With Jon, he's always put his best guy at middle linebacker," said head coach Tom O'Brien. "When you look at it, the best linebacker we have is Audie Cole. He's certainly the smartest guy out there, and that's the key to the middle linebacker, to get the defense aligned and in position to play. I think he will be fine."
Irving was moved to middle linebacker from weakside last spring and flourished inside. Cole is making a similar transition after starting the past two seasons at strongside linebacker. Now he is listed as the starter at middle linebacker.
"Obviously the first day is going to be rough," said Cole. "Everything is going wrong, guys aren't going where they are supposed to be, it's mayhem, but I'd say we did a lot of things good and a lot of things right.
"Some coverages we used to mess up halfway through the year last year I think we've got them down now."
Cole had a breakout junior year and was named second-team All-ACC by football analyst Phil Steele after totaling 86 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, five sacks, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles and an interception.
He contributed to a defense that improved on virtually every category from the previous season, ranking No. 31 nationally in total defense, No. 14 in rush defense, and No. 29 in scoring defense. The Pack finished 55, 57, and 99 in those respective categories in 2009.
"I think we had a lot of confidence last year," said Cole. "We had a lot of confidence in the run game. We knew going into every game we were not going to let teams run on us.
"I think we need to grow in the passing game. We need to get a lot stronger in that. We weren't nearly as good as we needed to be last year. It was all our fault."
Now Cole will be looking to make his mark from the middle. Checking in at 6-foot-5 and 239 pounds, Cole has above-average speed and outstanding physical tools. Now he needs to grow into the position this spring.
"You've got a different perspective based on where you at and who you read," he said. "I can't say too much this early, but I know I'm going to continue to learn.
"I think after the spring and throughout the fall I'm going to do fine at it. I'm just going to take it day-by-day."
It's a positive for Cole that NC State has been able to keep its defensive staff intact. Last year was his first under linebackers coach Jon Tenuta, but Tenuta is back along with defensive coordinator Mike Archer, so Cole feels that should help him with his position change.
"It's the same defense so when you play you understand," said Cole. "Last year we knew each other's positions. I can tell you all the plays, but it's about going out there and doing it [from the middle now]. As we go through the spring I'll get even more comfortable."
If he can handle the middle linebacker spot it will give the Pack a terrific duo of experienced playmakers in Cole and junior weakside linebacker Terrell Manning. Manning had a breakout season in his first year as a starter, recording 75 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles.
His ability to make plays last spring enabled the Pack to move Irving inside from weakside linebacker, and the State coaches hope another young linebacker, D.J. Green, will perform well enough at strongside linebacker that they can keep Cole in the middle.
Green was a reserve safety as a true freshman in 2010, totaling 16 tackles. However, the staff moved the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder to strongside linebacker prior to spring practice, as they believe his physical gifts will enable him to be a playmaker at the field linebacker position.
"D.J. Green will be an experiment at field linebacker, but certainly when you look at him out there he's a pretty guy standing out there," said O'Brien. "[Laughing] We'll see if he can make plays. You can't just be pretty.
"He's a football player. There's a lot of good things we saw, that's why we played him last year as a freshman."
"D.J. is going to be great," said Cole. "Once he gets all his assignments down, D.J. is going to be great."
Spring practice is the time to tinker with position changes and take different looks at players. Ultimately, the goal for NC State and any other team is to put their players in the best spot for the team to be successful.
"You try to get more speed on the field, you try to get better players on the field," O'Brien stated. "We may move a lot of guys around here the next couple of days because its all about getting a better starting point when you come back in August. Then when you play the first game you have your 11 best on offense and defense on the field."
"We're looking for competition, and we're looking for guys to win spots."