When Earl Wolff and the other eight returning starters on NC State's defense take the field Sept. 3 against Liberty, their experience should be just as evident as any physical attribute any of them bring to the table. And it could pay big dividends for the Wolfpack in 2011.
For Wolff, a redshirt junior from Raeford, N.C., the experience he gained in 2009 and 2010 has led to more comfort on the field. He's hoping his comfort can be turned into discomfort for opposing offenses.
"Everyone out there is comfortable," he said. "Everyone knows what they are doing and that's a good thing. Everybody out there is trying to get some swagger for the defense, and we should have that this year."
There have been times in the last two years when the swagger Wolff and the rest of the defense is looking for couldn't have been farther away. During one stretch of an up and down 2009 campaign, Wolff and company gave up at least 30 points in eight straight games. It was a learning process, to say the least.
"A lot of guys were forced to play before their time and it was a detriment to us a couple of years ago because they were playing," Tom O'Brien said Tuesday following practice. "But it certainly, as we talked, would be good in the future."
That future started to take shape 2010, when the defense improved dramatically during a 9-4 season. Wolff helped lead the way from his boundary safety position, starting all 12 games and leading the team with 95 tackles. Wolff notched his first career interception against Central Florida and tallied double-digit tackles on three different occasions.
Now, as some of the same guys who struggled lining up two years ago prepare for 2011, the learning process is largely finished. For the first time since O'Brien's arrival in Raleigh, there are more offensive concerns than defensive ones. Wolff knows how valuable the experience of the last two years is and says the defense is just ready to play and build on the successes of 2010.
"We finished out great last year so basically we just have to come into this year and try to be even better," Wolff said Tuesday after NC State's first fall practice. "The backups and the starters have all pretty much played on defense This year we have to come out and knock people in the mouth on the first play."
One pair of shoes that could be difficult to replace belonged to Nate Irving, the emotional and physical leader of the 2010 defense who has signed with the Denver Broncos. While Wolff admits that replacing Irving won't be easy, he noted that this year's defense has plenty of guys capable of doing just that.
13 players on the fall organizational chart have started games, including seven in the defensive backfield. Seven projected starters have more than 10 career starts.
"The guys are trying to step up. [Nate Irving] was a great player. He didn't say much but when he did it was pretty important," Wolff said. "Everybody is trying to step up, from me and all the defensive backs to Audie [Cole] and Terrell [Manning] at the linebackers and J.R. Sweezy and Markus Kuhn at the defensive line."
Wolff, who has added noticeable bulk since the end of 2010, said he's taken a more workmanlike approach to preparation between his second and third seasons. He even cut his long hair, going with what he called a more "professional look."
"Every year I am just trying to get better and help my teammates as much as possible," he said. "In the offseason I watched a lot of film. I'm just more comfortable now. Defensively, we're hungry right now and ready for September 3."
Ready has a different definition for Wolff and the rest of the defense after two years of growth, and it will be on full display in just one month when NC State takes the field against Liberty.