RALEIGH — N.C. State junior linebacker Audie Cole saw the play developing away from him Saturday night but held his position.
He recognized the play as one he used to run when he was quarterbacking Monroe High in Michigan. When Central Florida wide receiver Nico Flores stopped, turned and threw a pass back toward a receiver in Cole's vicinity, Cole was ready.
Flores' dying quail of a pass plummeted off target, but not before Cole hustled after the ball, intercepted and crashed out of bounds. On one play, Cole had demonstrated the understanding of the game that appears to make him vastly improved this season.
Cole, who led the team with 85 tackles last season, was asked if he would have recognized that play in 2009.
"Probably not," he said. "I don't think so."
As N.C. State (2-0) prepares to play host to Cincinnati (1-1) at 7:30 tonight, the Wolfpack coaches hope Cole's brilliant performance in the win over Central Florida indicates better things are coming from him and the rest of the team this season.
A year ago, the Wolfpack gave up 31.2 points per game, the second-highest mark in the ACC, while relying heavily on sophomores and freshmen at linebacker and in the secondary.
Coach Tom O'Brien said for the entire offseason that he thought that hard-knocks experience from 2009 would pay dividends for N.C. State this season. It appears that's true for Cole after what O'Brien called a "breakout" game for Cole.
He was credited unofficially with 12 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack and the interception.
"He has physical ability to be an excellent linebacker," O'Brien said. "We saw that. It's a question of the mental aspect of it, figuring out where he's supposed to be and when he's supposed to be there, and the anticipation. The anticipation aspect comes with playing, being on the football field. And he never comes off."
Cole's improvement was just one of the noticeable differences in N.C. State's defense Saturday night. The Wolfpack also blitzed more often than last season, and O'Brien said new linebackers coach Jon Tenuta's third-down pressure packages have added a new dimension.
Defensive coordinator Mike Archer also has implemented a new scheme that dates back to his days as a linebackers coach on Bill Cowher's staff with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1996 to 2002.
N.C. State occasionally lined up in a three-man front - O'Brien called it a "30" defense - rather than its traditional four-man front. The ability of new starter David Akinniyi and backup Audi Augustin to play both defensive end and outside linebacker has given the team more versatility on defense.
That versatility led to some encouraging results. After intercepting just eight passes all of last season, the Wolfpack picked off three against Central Florida.
N.C. State made eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage and clinched the win in the final minute when sophomore safety Brandan Bishop caused a fumble that was recovered by another sophomore, linebacker Terrell Manning.
"Winning the football game at the end on defense the way it was won was a great confidence builder, I think, for the defense," O'Brien said. "That's one thing they needed on defense to play with confidence, especially some of the young kids."
Cole no longer is one of the young kids as a fourth-year player in the program. He appeared vastly different from the player who appeared unsure of which direction he should be going in last year's season-opener against South Carolina.
His father, William Cole, said Audie appears thicker than he did a year ago, with 234 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. But the difference for Cole is more mental than physical.
"I just think the light's turned on for him and he's figured it out," William Cole said. "The game's slowed down for him a little bit."
It's too soon to conclude that Cole and the defense are going to lead N.C. State to a better record than the 5-7 mark the Wolfpack posted a year ago.
Although Central Florida returned 15 starters plus two specialists off a team that was 8-5 last season, N.C. State has yet to face an opponent from a BCS conference.
Nonetheless, the defense is off to a promising start along with Cole.
"He plays and he gives you an honest day of work, and he's starting to see the dividends of all that hard work paying off for him," O'Brien said. "Hopefully he can take another step now. He can't be satisfied where he is. He's got to continue to grow and get better every week."
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