Irving: 'I Have To Lead'

RALEIGH, N.C. -- NC State must replace three starters at linebacker after losing seniors LeRue Rumph, James Martin, and Ernest Jones. There isn't much experience at the position and plenty of youth, but several of the players possess major upside.

The returnee who could be poised to have the biggest year is redshirt sophomore Nate Irving, a key to the Wolfpack's late-season turnaround in 2007.

A native of Wallace, North Carolina, Irving enrolled at NC State in 2006 after a stellar career at Wallace-Rose Hill High School, one of the top football programs in the state. An all-conference, all-state, and Shrine Bowl selection, Irving recorded 110 tackles, six forced fumbles, three sacks, an interception, and 12 all-purpose touchdowns during his senior campaign.

Because of the Wolfpack's depth at linebacker, Irving was able to redshirt and improve as a player.

"I improved on my fundamentals a lot that year," he said. "I worked on my footwork and using my hands more as a linebacker. The big thing was it helped me get stronger in the weight room."

As a redshirt freshman, Irving started slowly, totaling 14 tackles and two tackles for a loss over the first six games of the season. He battled a nagging ankle injury that forced him to miss the Wofford game, and NC State was starting three seniors at linebacker. Following the FSU game, the Wolfpack had a bye week and the coaching staff tinkered with the lineup and the players put in extra work on fundamentals. It seemed to really pay off for Irving.

"It was an opportunity."

In the next game against East Carolina, he tallied five tackles in just 23 snaps. That effort led to Irving earning the first start of his career the following week versus Virginia, and he didn't disappoint. In the victory, Irving's six tackles and two tackles for a loss were instrumental, and he used those back-to-back efforts to springboard a great individual finish to the season.

"He's worked really hard, and he's done a great job," NC State head coach Tom O'Brien said of Irving after the Virginia win. "He's got a good feel for the game. He's got a good knack in pass defense too of finding zones, bodying people up... I think he's a young guy that is learning each and every week out there and he really did give us a good boost on Saturday. On the show the other night, we had a couple of clips of him on back-to-back-to-back plays making plays for us. I think he's a kid that is getting a little better each and every week."

"It was an opportunity," said Irving. "I feel it was God-given and I want to thank him for it, but it was an opportunity for me to show that I can play. It showed that the coaches trust me."

Over the final six games, which included four starts, Irving tallied 38 tackles and five tackles for a loss. He ended the year with 52 tackles and seven tackles for a loss, finishing seventh and third respectively on the team in those two categories despite playing limited snaps for much of the season.

Throughout the course of each game, Irving would flash the big-play potential that some feel he can bring on a consistent basis in 2008.

"I always thought I could play good, but I know I can play better," he said. "I don't think about the plays I make... I'm always thinking about the plays I don't make but know I can make."

At 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds, he has good size, above-average quickness, and outstanding instincts. Irving's ability to shed blocks and make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage is a big asset for the Wolfpack.

"Nate is a very smart football player," said linebackers coach Andy McCollum. "He sees things so well."

"He sees things so well."

If he continues to progress he should be the Pack's leader at linebacker. This spring he emerged as a leader.

"In the spring, I feel I improved overall as a linebacker," said Irving. "I kept improving on my fundamentals, and I made even more plays. I also started to become more of a leader. I have to lead. I have the most experience so I have to show the young guys what to do and how to do it."

NC State signed a stellar linebacker class in 2008, and three of those signees, Dwayne Maddox, Sterling Lucas, and William Beasley, are competing for playing time. Maddox enrolled in the spring so he has a head start on the others, but Lucas and Beasley are flashing the potential that made them big-time recruits.

"They can play," Irving stated. "I've seen some promise. You can tell they are getting better every day at every practice."

The trio will add depth to a linebacker unit that includes Irving, senior strongside linebacker Robbie Leonard, junior middle linebacker Ray Michel, sophomore weakside linebacker Thomas Barnes, sophomore strongside linebacker John Ware, and redshirt freshman strongside linebacker Audie Cole. If NC State's defense is going to improve this season, Irving will be a major factor. He has the potential to be an All-ACC performer at some point in his career, but don't ask him about individual goals. His only focus is the team's defense and winning football games.

"I'm just looking at the defense as a whole," he said. "I think the defense is going to break out and have a big year. I'm not thinking about what I will do individually. My individual goals are to be a leader as a linebacker and help our team reach our team goals. We want to win more games... a lot more games."

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