RALEIGH — The taking of N.C. State's football team photo each August is an interesting and symbolic production.
The Wolfpack freshmen must climb the steps of the ultra-steep bleachers to the top, a somewhat precarious position that leaves some a bit wide-eyed, unsteady and unsure of themselves. The upperclassmen are positioned lower, their feet closer to the ground.
Two years ago, Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop were among those near the top, holding on. And as the 2009 season unfolded, they both were thrust into the Wolfpack lineup at safety, a pair of freshmen learning on the fly, put in some precarious positions.
"Baptized under fire," NCSU coach Tom O'Brien said this week.
Wolff and Bishop can laugh a little about that now in talking of the complexities of learning to play the secondary at the major-college level. Wolff readily says he was "lost" at times that season, to which a nodding Bishop adds, "We've come a long way."
Wolff, a redshirt junior, has 17 career starts at boundary safety. Bishop, who played as a true freshman in 2009, has started 20 of 24 games at field safety for the Pack.
"They came in as little puppies and they took everything in stride, even though when you put them out there so early mentally they get beat up so bad it's hard to regain their confidence," defensive backs coach Mike Reed said. "But these young men stuck together like brothers and put a lot of work in, and it shows."
At first glance, Bishop and Wolff seemingly have little in common. Bishop is from Boca Raton, Fla., a tiny spot in Palm Beach County, and played at Boca Raton High. Wolff is from Raeford, a product of Hoke County High.
"We're the yin and the yang," Bishop said, smiling.
Bishop is white and Wolff is black, but all that means is Bishop can joke "there's not a whole lot of white safeties." Bishop says he goes by "B-Bish" and calls Wolff "Fenton," and the two are tight.
"We may look different but Earl's my brother," Bishop said. "We come from different backgrounds but we've grown up together.
"They're all my brothers in the secondary but Earl and I especially have been close because we've been playing together, opposite each other. I know what he's thinking. He doesn't even have to say anything sometimes. I can tell what's going through his head."
Bishop, at 6-2 and 210, is a physical type, more a banger than a blur. Last season, it was his jarring hit that forced a late fumble by Central Florida, sealing the Pack's 28-21 road win.
Bishop also led the Pack with four interceptions last season. He had two picks in the 44-17 victory over Boston College, but his biggest game came in the Champs Sports Bowl win over West Virginia -- a darting, acrobatic grab in the second half that had Reed shaking his head.
"Brandan has always been a very physical kid but he's become more a student of the game," Reed said. "The same is true for Earl."
Wolff, smaller than Bishop at 6 feet and 201 pounds, has better speed but doesn't shy away from contact. He was third on the team in tackles last season with 91, piling up a season-high 14 hits in State's 29-25 win at North Carolina.
"I learned a lot from my mistakes from two years ago," Wolff said. "I didn't really know the entire playbook then. I have a better grasp of everything now and can be more instinctive."
While Bishop and Wolff should remain the starters, they'll be pushed by three sophomores. Dontae Johnson was one of five true freshmen who started a game last season, Dean Haynes is a capable backup at boundary safety and Donald Coleman is fighting for playing time in preseason camp.
But Wolff and Bishop should be the leaders. At that team photo outside the Murphy Center, their body language was all about confidence and experience.
"They're not worried about getting lined up, or what the call is, what they're supposed to do," O'Brien said. "They understand all that now. They can just go play - go to the football and go as fast as they can get there."
Their feet firmly on the ground.
email@example.com or 919-829-8945