If you happen to be driving around the PNC Arena or around that area for whatever reason, you can catch a glimpse of the coach's tower, and maybe some practice jerseys and football shouts if you're lucky.
But, there's one tree that lines the wire fence that's not like the others. It's the mecca of all hiding spots. It's so perfect, it's like the tree's branches were purposefully cut off at the bottom so as to carve out a little niche of space facing the practice fields. The tree is right in the middle, so you have a perfect view of all angles on the field. There's also some shrubbery that sits in front of the tree behind the fence, so a 14/15-year-old girl can hide in the tree that's behind the overgrown grass and not be seen as her eyes scan the field.
During the hot summer days intensified by the Carolina humidity, I would act like I was going for a run around the PNC Arena. I would run back and forth along the paved road a few yards away from the bushes and trees that lined the wire fence of the practice field, until I figured the timing was just right. When I thought the camera man atop the tower wasn't looking or there were no cars coming, I'd make my dash into my perfect hiding spot inside the tree, complete with dirt to sit on and granddaddy long-legs to brush away (I hope DY doesn’t see this…)
I'd take out my notebook and pencil and start writing what I saw. It was basic at first, like "Willie Young had two sacks,” or "Anthony Hill is the team's best tight end," but as time went on, I got better at watching and knowing what to look for.
Sometimes the practices would be open to the media, so there would be reporters there, standing on the pavement near the entrance. I wasn't jealous of them, hey, I was sitting in dirt even closer to the action.
I was raised on N.C. State everything. Which means I asked for and received subscriptions to Pack Pride for Christmas.
I would take notes, and then go home and compare mine to the ones on PackPride.com and talk about it with my dad. Highlight of my summer.
"He was fast, physical, instinctive, and he didn't hold back."
Well, summer camp rolled around, so that meant new faces for me to learn before I could nonchalantly run to my hiding spot to watch rising high school juniors and seniors.
So, I was watching camp in 2007, observing new head coach Tom O'Brien's straw hat, crossed arms, and serious demeanor. But that day was different. There was one guy that completely stood out above the rest in every drill and every skelly snap. I figured he was a four-star guy with an impressive offer list. He was fast, physical, instinctive, and he didn't hold back. He was dominating every 1-on-1 play, around the ball on every snap, whether as a running back, wide receiver, or corner, and he was turning more heads than just the girl who was hiding in the trees. He was easy to keep an eye on because he had short dreads coming out of his helmet.
Well, I went home after camp and talked about it with my dad. I didn't know who this guy was because he wasn't a highly touted one that was previewed on the message boards. I came to realize I might not ever find out who he was.
The next day I log into Pack Pride and find out N.C. State has not only offered one of their campers, but he committed on the spot. And his name was Earl Wolff. I saw his picture on the front page, and I knew that was him.
He was so off the radar that his first story in the Scout archive came only after he was offered and committed. It was written by Pack Pride's publisher, James Henderson, and titled: "In-State Sleeper Commits to Pack."
Wolff said in the article:
"I always liked the school. My last name is Wolff, and they are the Wolfpack... it all makes sense."
Well, it didn't make sense to me.
First offer? No stars? I couldn't believe it. I wasn't a professional scout at the time, and that's still not the case, but I knew enough to realize this kid was going to be a great player.
Earl Wolff, who had only generated any real interest from East Carolina up to that point, hailed from Raeford, North Carolina and attended Hoke County High School.
Well, from then on, Wolff was my favorite player. He was part of a class that I could tell you most anything about. Manning, Glennon, Barnes, Wolff, at that point, the sky was the limit for Tom O'Brien.
Wolff started four games as a redshirt freshman, and he earned the starting spot at safety as a sophomore. That year he won the team's Most Outstanding Defensive Back award. Flash forward to his senior season, Wolff took home first-team All-ACC honors and finished with 119 tackles.
I loved watching football before I saw Earl at camp. I loved watching athletes succeed before that day, too. But that day, I realized I wanted to be a sports reporter. I wanted to find guys like that, under-the-radar guys, write about them and watch them climb the ranks and earn recognition.
That's why I like recruiting. It's a process and a progression. I like any process, mine or someone else's. From getting that first offer, to taking visits, building relationships, committing, and signing, it's fulfilling to follow someone's dream, but especially a young person's. And, the best part about all of that? It's only the beginning of their careers. But, if you know where someone comes from, you already know where they're headed before they get there.
I knew Earl was destined for something better than an in-state sleeper, and not just because of his play at camp that day, but because I came to hear about his humble Hoke County roots, the discipline instilled in him at a young age by his mother who is in the military, and of course his wide, easy-coming smile.
"Wolff took home first-team All-ACC honors and finished with 119 tackles."
At ACC media days in Greensboro, N.C. last summer, I got to interview Earl. I asked him about that day when he was offered by State at camp, and he laughed and said, "Back then, I didn't know anything about football, all I did was play the game. I didn't know what cover the deep post was or even cover the flats. It's a blessing to be here and learn everything I've learned."
Charismatic and appreciative. He knows the world owes him nothing, and he's embraced it. That's how he's got to where he is today.
Today or tomorrow he will celebrate with friends and family as his name is called in the 2013 NFL Draft. He's risen in the ranks, according to the draft experts. He's now considered a top ten or top five safety in a draft with a lot of defensive back talent. He's increased his stock in combines, workouts, and interviews.
But, that doesn't surprise me.
From watching the in-state sleeper from inside a tree, to listening to him preview the NFL draft on the David Glenn Show, Earl has made it. Still humble, still gracious and still hard-working, his process is almost complete.