Redshirt junior linebacker Audie Cole did not play much defense in high school. His primary job was to run the offense as quarterback at Monroe (Mich.) High. So it's understandable that Cole would take some time to adjust to being a college linebacker.
But even Cole acknowledges in hindsight it took a lot of work to become the leading tackle on NC State's team.
"My freshman year, looking back, I can't even believe it," Cole said. "I was terrible. Every year I have gotten better."
Cole played in all 13 games in 2008 as a redshirt freshman, but mostly on special teams. He had 14 tackles and pressured the quarterback once. Despite the lack of experience, Cole was deemed a pleasant surprise during 2009 spring drills and continued to impress last fall, earning the starting strongside linebacker spot.
Cole was one of just three Wolfpack defenders to start every game in 2009, joining departed senior defensive linemen Leroy Burgess and Willie Young. Cole finished the year with a team-high 85 tackles, including eight for losses and four sacks, five quarterback hurries, four pass breakups and a forced fumble.
The production was not instant. Although he recorded two sacks in the first three games, after five contests he had 25 tackles, an average of five per game. Down the stretch, Cole turned it up a notch. In his final five games Cole had 44 tackles, an average of almost nine a contest.
"Last year I thought I felt pretty comfortable, but I wasn't," Cole admits. "Right now I feel very comfortable, but as the year goes on I think I'll feel even better, I hope. Right now I think all the linebackers, DB's too, I think everyone is getting comfortable with a couple of years under us. I think we'll be alright.
"I think it will be a lot easier this year with Nate [Irving] back. I think our whole defense is growing up, so personally it's going to be a lot easier to read things and make plays. I guess we are more skilled. Most of us have experience under our belts, two years, that itself I guess will help myself out. The other 10 people around me will help me."
Cole, who cut his long hair over the offseason in favor of a trimmed look, said that he notices "all the time" during practice plays where the younger, inexperienced Cole would have made a mistake.
"It happens a lot when I watch the new freshmen, and I'm watching them make the same exact mistake I used to make, and you can just tell that their mind is just running 100 miles per hour," Cole said. "Now I can just sit there and see how easy now it looks, but I know looking back I have no idea what was going it.
"I tell them all the time, 'Don't worry about it. We've all been there.'"
Helping Cole out this fall will be new linebackers coach Jon Tenuta, a renowned defensive assistant that arrived at NC State after a stint as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. Tenuta has also served as the DC at Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Ohio State.
"I enjoy him. I like him a lot," Cole said. "I've learned a lot of things from him, different things that I didn't know before that will help me in my performance tremendously."
Tenuta's arrival and the return of fifth-year senior linebacker Irving after he missed the 2009 season with injuries sustained from a preseason car wreck are two reasons why the Wolfpack's defense is hoping to improve off a disappointing season last year. Cole's development could be a third factor in the defense's improvement.
Until the Pack stop offenses on third down and force some turnovers however the defense will continue to be perceived as a weakness on the field and the subject of many questions.
"We deserve it," Cole said. "We didn't perform last year. That's something we got to deal with, something we got to change this year. Hopefully next year we won't get those questions anymore."