A conversation in the weight room after spring practice gave N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien hope that safety Earl Wolff would be an improved player this football season as a sophomore for the Wolfpack.
Wolff said he finally was beginning to realize just how little he had understood about the defense in 2009, when he was pressed into action before he was ready as a redshirt freshman.
Sure enough, as a wiser, more experienced sophomore, Wolff has become one of the most productive players on N.C. State's defense. He leads the team with 92 tackles and three forced fumbles as the Wolfpack (8-4) gets set to play No. 22 West Virginia (9-3) Tuesday night in Orlando, Fla., in the Champs Sports Bowl (6:30 p.m., ESPN).
"He's recognizing things much better, which allows you to play faster," O'Brien said. "He has the ability and talent to be a big-league safety. But the recognition, the understanding, taking the right steps and heading the right way, he's doing those things now, so he's in position to make more plays than he has in the past."
Wolff calls his opportunity to play for N.C. State a dream come true, laughing when told - obviously not for the first time- he has the perfect name for a Wolfpack player.
He said his high school, Hoke County High, used red uniforms and saluted players with the same hand signal (pointer and pinky pointed skyward so the hand resembles a wolf) that N.C. State fans use.
On a 2007 visit to an N.C. State football camp that included classmates Mike Glennon and T.J. Graham, Wolff felt like he was home. But after redshirting in 2008, he was thrust into a role for which he wasn't totally prepared in 2009.
He might have been N.C. State's most athletic safety, but he didn't understand the defense as well as he would have liked. Wolff started four games but struggled along with the rest of the Wolfpack's defensive backs as the team gave up a staggering 31.2 points per game.
"I had my bumps and bruises, my ups and downs," Wolff said. "I was a freshman. I was still learning."
Wolff had perhaps the signature play in a season of frustration for N.C. State's defensive backs, hanging on desperately to Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams' jersey during last season's 38-10 loss to Hokies. Williams dragged him into the end zone like a water skier trailing in the wake of a boat.
But this season has been different for Wolff. On Florida State's final drive on Oct. 28, he found himself holding on to the back of another player's jersey, as Taiwan Easterling tried to pull away for a go-ahead touchdown.
This time, Wolff got him out of bounds, and Florida State eventually lost a fumble that clinched the biggest win of the season for the Wolfpack.
"I've come a long way," Wolff said. "[But] I can get better in everything. I try never to get complacent. I can get better tackling, covering, mentally, physically."
Wolff's strength is stopping the run, but along with the rest of the Wolfpack secondary, he is being urged to improve against the pass going into the bowl game.
In N.C. State's past two games, North Carolina passed for 411 yards, and Maryland threw for 417 yards.
"We can't keep giving up 400 yards a game with the passing," defensive coordinator Mike Archer said. "You're not going to be successful. Right now that's our biggest concern."
Despite its recent problems against the pass, N.C. State's defense has improved substantially over last season, giving up 22.5 points per game.
Wolf has been a big part of that. He has made 11 or more tackles in three of N.C. State's past six games.
And Archer is eager to see what he will do over the next couple of years, because Wolff is only a sophomore.
"We've been very pleased with what he's done," Archer said, "and hope that he continues to get better."
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