Bill Hass on the ACC: Wolfpack's Irving Intercepts, Tackles and Busts Wedges
Sept. 11, 2008
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - There are statistics for tackles, and you will find Nate Irving's name high on the list among ACC players.
And there are statistics for interceptions, and his name is near the top there, too.
But there are no statistics for another of Irving's duties at NC State - wedge-busting.
A wedge-buster is the guy on the kickoff coverage team who runs full-tilt down the field, looks for the wedge of opposing players formed around the kick returner and, as the name implies, tries to bust it up so someone else can get the statistic of tackling the man with the ball.
"It's hard, just running down the field, knowing every time you're going to hit about two or three guys that weigh about 100 pounds more than you do," said Irving, who is 6-1, 225 pounds.
It's not for the faint of heart and there's no real technique to it other than "just don't stop your feet; keep your feet running." Irving said the only thing more physical in football might be playing fullback and blocking on nearly every play.
After participating in such destruction, Irving then takes his place at one of the Wolfpack's inside linebacker spots and proceeds to create a little mayhem himself. Through the Pack's first two games, he has been in on 23 tackles (tied for first in the ACC with Clemson's Michael Hamlin at 11.5 per game) and has made two interceptions (tied with two other players for second place).
"He certainly has a great football IQ," said State coach Tom O'Brien. "He sees things, he reacts fast, he's very comfortable in the scheme that we're in right now and he continues to make plays. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time and he's certainly our best defensive player as we speak today."
It has taken a little while for Irving to arrive at this point. Born in northern New Jersey, he moved to North Carolina at the age of 14 and played his high school football at Wallace-Rose Hill.
"Everything in New Jersey is more fast-paced," he said, "and it was kind of hard to get adjusted to being slowed down. I think I've made an adjustment pretty good."
Irving spent his first season as a red-shirt under coach Chuck Amato, then started the 2007 season under O'Brien's staff as a reserve and special teams player. He was making himself noticed when an injury opened a spot for him in the lineup. He started four of the last five games.
Andy McCollum, the Wolfpack's linebackers coach, said Irving kept improving all last season. He began playing "high" - that is, in a position too upright. But he learned to lower the level of his shoulder pads and that seemed to open up his vision of the field.
During the off season, Irving said he "worked on everything the coaches asked me to do." He improved his speed and quickness and got stronger through working with strength coach Todd Rice.
And according to McCollum, the improvement won't stop there.
"He's got a great desire to be good," McCollum said. "He's got a tremendous work ethic, he's a tremendous character kid, and he studies the game. He's very instinctive and he's like those linebackers that just have a knack. He's got a great sense of what's going on around him and a great feel for the game and puts himself in position to make some plays.
"He's becoming a leader. He's a quiet guy and doesn't say a lot, but he's all business when it comes to playing the game. Every day he goes out there's something he wants to get better at, so he's got personal goals and team goals and every day he goes out there he'll do something and you'll say `wow!'"
Irving made one of the "wow" plays of the early season when he snatched an interception with one hand against South Carolina. Both O'Brien and McCollum thought the play was remarkable. To Irving, it was no big deal.
"I give credit to defensive line for getting pressure on the quarterback and to the defensive backs for coverage," he said. "I just went up and got the ball. I've been blessed with big hands; it was almost kind of easy."
McCollum mentioned a play against William & Mary when Irving blitzed but sensed a receiver coming out on a short flare route. Irving broke off his blitz and his big mitts grabbed the ball and returned it inside the the William & Mary 10.
Those instincts will be needed in full force Saturday when the Wolfpack plays at Clemson in its first ACC game of the season. The Tigers, the preseason choice to win the league championship, have some of the best skill players in the conference, including quarterback Cullen Harper, runners James Davis and C.J. Spiller and receiver Aaron Kelly.
"They're fast," Irving said of the Tigers. "Davis is more of a downhill, powerful runner and Spiller is fast so they will get him outside and he can also run the swing route. Harper is a great quarterback who doesn't make mistakes. It's going to take an outstanding defensive effort to contain them."
Just as State will concoct a game plan to deal with Clemson's weapons, so will the Tigers conceive one to counter the Pack defense. Coach Tommy Bowden didn't know Irving's name, but noticed him on film right away.
"Do you know his number? Is it 56?" Bowden asked. "He's really, really quick and he's got great agility. When guys try to get their hands on him he can use leverage and get around them and accelerate; he's got great acceleration. You put on the tape and watch their team, he jumps off the radar. He's one of the guys that sticks out."
Irving figures to have a busy day against the Tigers, pressuring Harper, running down Davis and Spiller, dropping back into pass coverage. And maybe, while he's at it, a little wedge-busting.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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