Assessing the fall's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Senior N.C. State linebacker Nate Irving.
• Typecasting. Irving is exactly the kind of player N.C. State needs to emerge from its lightly regarded recruiting classes, a small-town sleeper who quickly grew into his 6'1", 235-pound frame and showed a nose for the ball almost immediately. He came to Raleigh as a two-star "athlete" in 2006 with an eye on possibly competing at wide receiver or tight end, but was pegged for an outside linebacker early on and settled as a starter there as a redshirt freshman, racking up 33 of his 42 total tackles for the season -- as well as six of his eight tackles for loss -- in the last six games. In 2008, Irving almost led the team in total tackles despite missing essentially the entire month of October with an injury; ACC coaches noticed with an honorable mention all-conference nod anyway, which might have been a first-team pick if Irving had been healthy all season. As a fourth-year junior, he was clearly the leader of the defense going into last fall.
Coming into 2010, though, Irving is lucky to be suiting up at all after suffering a badly broken leg, separated shoulder and collapsed lung in a horrific car accident last June, knocking him out for all of 2009 and putting his football future in doubt. In fact, it may still be in some doubt -- the pain only subsided enough to allow him to begin running again last month, and he was just cleared for spring practice earlier this week.
• Best-case. Irving wasn't just the main playmaker in 2008, but often seemed like the only playmaker for a defense that finished dead last in the ACC in scoring and total defense, and was arguably worse without him last year -- ACC offenses put up a staggering 441 yards and 39 points per game, or just over five touchdowns every time out. By the end of the regular season, holding North Carolina to a mere 27 points in the season finale (the first opponent the Pack had held under 30 since limiting Gardner-Webb to 14 in September) counted as a triumph.
If Irving returns at full speed, he should be pretty easily the best player on the defense, equally capable of making plays in coverage and in opposing backfields. In 2008, he picked off a pass in each of the Wolfpack's first three games, returning one for the team's only touchdown in an eventual loss to Clemson, and scored 11 tackles for loss, most of them after returning from injury in November. Ideally, Irving is the kind of high-intensity player whose presence can set a tone for the entire unit; on a defense that loses five of its top six tacklers and its only consistent pass rusher (underrated end Willie Young), a steady, competent hand could be the difference between respectability and another total collapse.
• Worst-case. It's still possible that Irving's injuries won't allow him to return, or will render him a shadow of his former self. But even assuming he returns as the same player who showed so much promise two years ago, the defense was so far gone last year that the return of a single, merely solid player seems like a Band-Aid on a mortal wound. This was the league's worst defense with Irving en tow for two-thirds of the season two years ago, and one of the worst in the nation without him last year. When the the most optimistic facet of your entire defense is the return of a potentially gimpy, former honorable mention all-conference pick who hasn't played a game in almost two years -- and Irving's return is by far the best news for the Pack D next fall -- there's no other word for the situation but "grim."
• From the Inside. On the same note, Steven, aka "Akula Wolf" from the State-obsessed blog Backing the Pack, says Irving's absence was glaring last year, but wonders if fellow Pack fans aren't expecting too much from his return:
I get the feeling that NC State fans expect Nate Irving to pick up right where he left off. It's not necessarily realistic or fair, but it's what Wolfpack fans need.
He doesn't make or break the defense; in its current state, no one possibly could. His absence last season was obvious every week, most notably against Duke, I guess, because it was Duke. [The Blue Devils gained 500 yards against N.C. State in a 49-28 win -- ed.] What was painfully clear in that game, as in so many others, was that we had little talent at linebacker, and less experience.
• What to Expect in '10. Irving seems unlikely to set the conference on fire, but should deliver a handful of big plays over the course of the season and resume his role as the top tackler if healthy, if only for lack of competition. If there's any sort of wholesale turnaround, he's only likely to be a cog in that machine, and it's still likely to be a pretty mediocre machine. If Irving's name shows up enough over the course of the season to remain on the short list of the league's top defenders going into 2011 (a sixth year should be obligatory after the car accident), he'll have done all he can do.
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Previously: Andre Ellington (Clemson).