Cole, who passed for 3,285 yards and 23 touchdowns during his prep career, was surprised when Kelly left Central Michigan for Cincinnati in December of 2006, and the move caused Cole to re-open his recruitment.
"I really didn't have that many offers coming out," he stated. "I had a decent amount but it wasn't like the some of the guys around here who had probably 50 or so. I wasn't like that.
"Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan offered at quarterback... Cincinnati offered at quarterback, well they said. I don't really know... a few other schools."
A very good athlete, Cole, who checked in at 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds in high school, had been timed as low as 4.6 in the 40-yard dash. He excelled in multiple sports and was a Golden Gloves champ as a boxer.
"I've always been a natural athlete," said Cole. "My mom always said that anything with a ball I could do well in. I wasn't always the best, but I could get by in any sport. I grew up playing football, baseball, and basketball.
"I'm probably underrated as an athlete, but I think it's something I can get better at. I can always get faster and maybe move side-to-side quicker, but I like that people underestimate me."
In the summer of 2006 he had attended a football camp at Boston College, where Tom O'Brien, recruiting coordinator Jerry Petercuskie, and assistant coach Jim Bridge were impressed with Cole's athleticism. They also liked the toughness he showed at quarterback, and when O'Brien was hired by NC State that December the staff chose to make him a priority. However, it wouldn't be as a quarterback.
Because NC State lacked depth at linebacker, the staff chose to offer Cole a scholarship to play on defense, something he hadn't done a lot of in high school.
"I dabbled at defense in high school... my sophomore year I didn't play defense at all, I just played quarterback my sophomore, junior, and senior year," said Cole. "About halfway through my senior year they started playing me at safety.
"They were at Boston College at the time and they were recruiting me... they said they were recruiting me as an athlete. They weren't sure really, they just said I was athletic enough to play linebacker or tight end or whatever they saw me doing. They were upfront with me all the way. They weren't trying to get me there and then switch me which I thought a couple of schools were trying to do. They were honest and told me what they wanted, and that's what you got."
Cole took an official visit to NC State late in January and was one of the Wolfpack's last commitments in the 2007 recruiting class. Just a two-star recruit, he flew completely under the radar. Other underrated prospects at NC State who have starred under O'Brien and his staff include quarterback Russell Wilson, fullback Taylor Gentry, defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy, lineman Jake Vermiglio, and cornerback C.J. Wilson among others.
"I've noticed that [the NC State coaches can evaluate talent]," said Cole. "Not only me, there are numerous guys on the team. Coming out of high school they rank people with stars... in high school you're hearing this guy is a so-and-so star... he must be real good. In college I've seen four and five-stars that aren't worth anything, and I've seen two-stars or walk-ons come in and be some of the best players on the team. I don't really think any of that stuff matters anymore, looking back at what everyone used to think was a big deal in high school.
"I think coach O'Brien and them are the same way. They are looking for someone that's going to come out and play hard and work hard. That's what they base everything on, working hard and doing your assignments... you're going to be good."
The transition from quarterback to linebacker wasn't easy for Cole. He redshirted in 2007 and admits that he had trouble adjusting to the new mentality he had to play with.
"That first year I really didn't know what I was doing," he said. "I was just looking like an idiot out there because I didn't know anything. I didn't understand anything."
As a redshirt freshman he mainly contributed on special teams, and in 2009 he earned the starting job at strongside linebacker. Cole was thrown into the fire and struggled early but gained confidence as the season went on. He started all 12 games, leading the team in tackles (85), and had back-to-back double-digit tackle games to end the season against Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
"I can't remember which game it was, but it was sometime during my first year starting when the light clicked on for me," said Cole. "The first few games I was still not too sure of myself, but I figured it out.
"I made mistakes, everyone does, but the game slowed down, and I started seeing things and picking things up that I didn't use to."
Cole stepped his game even more in 2010, becoming a true playmaker for the Wolfpack. Lining up beside Nate Irving and Terrell Manning, he tied for the team lead in tackles (97) and also led the defense with 809 snaps from scrimmage.
Improved play from Cole and the entire defense helped NC State win nine games and finish the season ranked nationally. Irving was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2011 and his graduation left a gaping hole at middle linebacker, but linebackers coach Jon Tenuta plugged that hole quickly by moving Cole to middle linebacker in the spring.
"I learned a lot this spring," said Cole. "One thing that helped me was knowing the defense. I knew it from playing strongside linebacker because of how coach Tenuta teaches. He teaches us to know the role of every position on the defense... we have to go up on the board and draw up everyone's assignments.
"So, I already knew the defense. It was just going out and doing it from the middle position. It wasn't too bad. I think I fared pretty well for my first spring [at middle linebacker]."
Now a redshirt senior, Cole checks in at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds and is on the Butkus Award Watch List. He is listed on a few early NFL draft boards for 2012 and has the potential to post prolific statistical numbers at middle linebacker. However, he knows that he still has to go out and take care of business on the field.
"My father always tells me that I don't give myself enough credit... I guess that is how I was raised," he stated. "The thing is, spring ball is okay, but you can't simulate gametime work. It probably won't be until the games before I start to really figure things out."