The redshirt sophomore had 52 tackles last season in 11 games, including four starts at the end of the year. But he's now showing that he was only scratching the surface of his potential. Through two games Irving has amassed 23 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. After his 13-tackle performance against William & Mary, Irving was tabbed the ACC's Defensive Back of the Week, and it sounds like his hard work is paying off.
"[In the offseason] I just worked on being a better linebacker all-around – footwork, hands, being physical and being able to diagnose plays quicker," he said.
The linebacker showed off those hands in the first game of the season, snagging a pass out of the air with one hand before hauling it in for an interception. He's shown the footwork and physicality in both games, leading the team with 3.5 tackles for loss on top of his team-leading tackles total. For Irving it's as simple as following the advice of his coach... go after the ball.
"Coach O'Brien always says that if you hustle to the ball good things will happen," said Irving. "Coach Archer preaches that – it has helped us get turnovers."
Through two games, the Wolfpack has forced eight turnovers, half of the 16 they gained through 12 games in 2007. According to linebacker Robbie Leonard, it is a credit to how much more comfortable the team is with the defensive schemes.
"We learned so much from last year and our mistakes," said Leonard. "We've learned what needs to be corrected."
In addition to learning from their mistakes, Irving stated that creating more turnovers was a focus of the defense coming into the year. He attributes the improvement to the experience and also a simplified defense that allows the players to use their natural instincts to react quicker as opposed to thinking too much during a given play.
"With a year under my belt, going through that, I think I understand it a lot better," Irving said. "They've made the defense a little more basic... we can run around and play football without thinking. When you are able to focus less on what gap you have to be in, what drop you have to take, you are able to run to the ball."
The Pack will have its toughest defensive assignment to date when they travel to Death Valley this week to face Clemson. The Clemson offense is loaded with talent and it might have the best running back tandem in the country with C.J. Spiller and James Davis.
"You try and contain it," said Leonard. "You do your job and be fundamentally sound... be as physical as possible. We have to come out there ready to hit them in the mouth. They're fast."
In last season's 42-20 win over the Wolfpack, Davis and Spiller rushed for 280 yards and two scores. What does Irving think of the talented duo?
"They are two outstanding backs... we've watched film," he said. "But I think the defense will do a pretty good job trying to contain him."
After the first two weeks of the season, it's not surprising to hear Nate Irving sound confident.