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Irving is in the middle of big picture for Wolfpack

On the opening day of practice, newly elected N.C. State tri-captain Nate Irving stood in front of the team.

He was just shouting instructions for jumping jacks as the players warmed up, but he clearly was in his element.

Irving, who has been called the heart and soul of the N.C. State defense, is back after missing last season with injuries suffered in a car crash.

New linebackers coach Jon Tenuta has put him in a position where he hopes Irving can best lead a defense that almost certainly needs to improve to reach coach Tom O'Brien's goals of a winning season and bowl after going 5-7 in 2009.

Quarterback Russell Wilson and a high-powered offense seem capable of matching the 30.3 points per game posted last season. But after giving up 31.2 points per game last year - 11th in the 12-team ACC - N.C. State's defense is counting on Irving to lead a turnaround that will improve the won-loss record.

He will do it from a new spot on the field. Tenuta moved Irving, an honorable mention All-ACC selection in 2008, to middle linebacker from his old position outside on the boundary.

"I think the base of the defense, you've got to be strong down the middle," Tenuta said. "You've got to make everything go inside out. The easiest way to score is where? Straight ahead."

The addition of Tenuta might be as important as Irving's return. As Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator in 2002-07, he fashioned a blitzing scheme that overwhelmed opposing quarterbacks and took advantage of the Yellow Jackets defenders' speed and intelligence.

Tenuta has spent 16 years as a defensive coordinator at seven schools. He won't coordinate N.C. State's defense. Mike Archer still handles those duties, but he said Tenuta will help bring a new dimension to N.C. State in terms of pressuring the quarterback.

O'Brien said the addition of Tenuta won't change much in the structure of the defense, but could change its tenor and coaching points. He said Tenuta might make N.C. State a better blitz team.

Irving has been impressed with Tenuta's no-nonsense approach and teaching ability.

"If you've been around it as long as he has and as much as he has with the different positions and things like that, you learn a lot of things," Irving said. "He has a great knowledge of the game, and he is sharing that with the linebackers and the whole defensive staff."

For Irving, though, the position move comes with challenges. When he was playing outside, blockers generally only came at him from one direction.

Now they can come from any direction. And whereas Irving likely was to get blocked sometimes by a receiver or tight end on the boundary, he will deal with huge interior linemen and bruising fullbacks now on every play.

"I didn't have so much to run into 300-pound guys every single snap" before, Irving said. "Now I've got to hit them every play. I'm right in the mix. The banging took a while to get used to, but once I got used to it I didn't have any problem with it."

Tenuta said Irving fits well at middle linebacker because he has good instincts. Playing in the middle also allows Irving to use his natural leadership skills as he calls out directions.

"He understands the scheme and takes control and goes from there, and does a great job of it," Tenuta said. "And everybody listens to him."

The rest of N.C. State's defense is counting on maturity to create improvement. Field linebacker Audie Cole is in his second season as a starter, and boundary linebacker Terrell Manning said he finally has recovered from a knee injury suffered in his senior year of high school.

Defensive backs C.J. Wilson, Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop got significant experience last season as freshmen. O'Brien is looking for them to follow the path that former Boston College safety Jamie Silva did after struggling early in O'Brien's defense.

"Silva for two years got the ball thrown over his head," O'Brien said. "Everybody forgets when they're young and they don't tackle anybody."

Silva eventually became a first-team All-American and intercepted a school-record eight passes as a senior in 2007. He said the coaches finally gave him free reign in the second game of his junior season at Clemson.

"That was fun," said Silva, who is on injured reserve with the Indianapolis Colts. "They weren't coaching me like a rookie anymore."

N.C. State's defensive backs might not be quite to the point yet where they will be given a lot of free reign. But like Silva, who played with Jolonn Dunbar, they will have a strong leader at linebacker to point them in the right direction.

O'Brien said Irving might never be quite as strong physically as he was before the car crash because his injuries were so serious. But Irving still is plenty strong and fast, and he is determined not to let his teammates down.

"Being named captain (along with Wilson and receiver Jarvis Williams) is your team thinking highly of you and your team thinking you'll be able to do things right and help them win some games," he said. "And that was an honor for me."

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