Just a few years ago Audie Cole enrolled at NC State without much fanfare. An unheralded recruit out of Michigan, Cole accepted a late scholarship offer from the Wolfpack after verbally committing to Central Michigan earlier in the process.
A three-year starter at quarterback for Monroe (MI) High, Cole passed for over 3,000 yards with 40 total touchdowns during his career. He received attention from some MAC programs, but very few high-major teams expressed interest in the talented athlete. However, NC State coaches envisioned him making the move to the defensive side of the ball and were intrigued by his toughness, frame, and athleticism.
Prep quarterbacks moving to linebacker in college isn't a new concept as several have successfully made the transition. Linebackers are often referred to as quarterbacks of the defense, and mentally they are relied on to know all of the schemes and their own keys.
Recent ACC standouts made the move. Former Maryland star Erin Henderson, an All-ACC selection, was a great prep quarterback at Aberdeen (MD) High. North Carolina's one-two punch at linebacker, Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant, earned their recruiting stars as top-notch high school quarterbacks.
O'Brien and his staff have had their success with the position switch as well with former Boston College linebacker Ray Henderson. Checking in at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds but athletic enough to play all three linebacker positions, Henderson finished his career at BC with 263 tackles and an astounding nine interceptions.
Henderson enrolled as one of the top prep quarterbacks in New Jersey, passing for 1,975 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior quarterback at Cresskill High School. He ended up starting the final 37 games of his college career, earning All-Big East honors along the way.
"I was recruited to play defense the whole time even though I didn't play a lot of it in high school," said Cole. "I played some safety my senior year... mainly on third downs or when we needed me over there more. It depended on how the game was going because I was mainly the quarterback.
"It wasn't too big of a transition because I did all of the hitting drills with everybody else in high school. I didn't sit out anything just because I was at quarterback. I think that helped me with the physical aspects of playing linebacker."
Cole knew he had to continue developing physically. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, he wasn't ready to contribute at linebacker. He redshirted in 2007 and has gradually added the bulk and strength to where he now has ideal size for the position.
Audie Cole has added
nearly 40 pounds to his frame
since arriving on campus.
"I think when I got here I was around 205 pounds and now I'm about 245 or 250," said Cole. "I've always been tall, it's just been about filling out. I'm leveling off right now and I'm real comfortable with where I'm at. I don't want to get too much bigger, but it's definitely helped me."
Cole mainly played special teams in 2008, recording nine tackles while rotating as a backup between weakside and strongside linebacker. He has now settled in at strongside linebacker where Cole has the quickness, range, and athleticism to excel.
Traditionally, the strongside linebacker is a big, physical athlete normally assigned to cover tight ends and assist in stopping the run.
However, with more teams playing the spread, NC State plays their linebackers to either the wide side of the field (strongside), or the short side of the field (weak side). The strongside linebacker must be athletic enough to defend receivers, tailbacks, and tight ends in space, and although Cole is the Wolfpack's biggest linebacker he is also one of the most athletic.
"It takes getting used to at field linebacker," said Cole. "At weakside you are more in the box and at strongside you're outside of the box. It's almost second nature to me now being outside.. it's a lot of playing in the flats and covering slot receivers. I'm used to it now.
"I feel like my strong point is blitzing off the edge. I usually come hard and I have a lot of weight behind me when I hit. I can also move really well and I feel like that is one of my pluses... that and my size. I have good size for the position."
The redshirt sophomore really made an impression this spring. Cole was one of the top tacklers in the scrimmages and spring game, and solidified a spot in the linebacker rotation.
"Audie [Cole] has been a pleasant surprise," head coach Tom O'Brien said during spring practice. "Right now if I had to pick the most improved player, if we would ever do that, he's probably improved as much as anybody. He came in here as a quarterback and we put him at linebacker. From his first day on the field to where he is now he's made great strides."
"Things have slowed down a lot," said Cole. "I can't even describe how much from last season to this year... my freshman year to now. It's unreal.
My freshman year it seemed like everything was in fast forward, but it's slowed down so much that now it's clicking and I'm basically out here touching up on stuff... trying to get it all down for the game."
Questions are out there about the Wolfpack defense. Will they be better than last year's unit that finished last in the ACC in total defense? Can they overcome the loss of Nate Irving, the team's star linebacker who is sidelined indefinitely after breaking his leg in an auto accident?
Cole believes the linebackers are making strides in the right direction.
"Things are going good out here," he said. "It feels like everyone is picking up from last year. We all feel comfortable. Last year we didn't have much experience, but Dwayne [Maddox], Sterling [Lucas], and me feel like we've been here a while. We haven't played all that much, but we understand what's going on and we're confident we can step in and not miss a beat.
"I can't wait [for the season opener]. It's my first year really going all defense and playing... I'm pumped up."