By now, most of us have heard the basic story about Nate Irving.
A top linebacker from North Carolina State, the now-22-year-old player decided to drive back to school in Raleigh late one June night from his home in Wallace, North Carolina. He fell asleep at the wheel of his truck, which struck two trees on the night of June 28, 2009. It was a life-threatening one-vehicle accident. His injuries included a broken rib, a compound fracture of the tibia, a separated shoulder and a punctured lung. To this day, Irving keeps a picture of the wreck on his cellphone to remind himself of the frailty of human life, and how easily it can be lost. Irving now has a metal rod in one leg, and also bears the tattoo of a cross on the underside of his left forearm, with the date of the accident - 6-28-2009 - perpendicular to the base of the cross. Noted Irving,
I noticed that within a snap of a finger it can all be taken away. I want to go out and play every play as hard as I can, every practice as hard as I can, be at every meeting and do every workout. Just to be out there and take full advantage of it and appreciate the game for what it is really worth.
He added this about the tattoo:
It is not a reminder to me. It is a day I will never forget. It is just part of my story. When someone asks what it is about then I can share what I went through and maybe they are going through something and realize that if I could make it through that, then they can make it through whatever they are going through.
Nate missed all of 2009’s football season while recovering from those injuries. When he returned to the field in March of 2010, he was moved from Will to Mike linebacker, both to take advantage of his ability at leadership and also in case he’d lost a step. Nolan Nawrocki commented,
Although he still has a rod in his leg and does not play as fast as he once did, he has very good instincts and could play both inside or outside. John Fox seeks interchangeable linebackers who can play all three spots and Irving's versatility played in his favor and allowed him to be drafted earlier than he graded out on tape given the weakness of the ILB class.
Denver disagrees that Irving has lost a step, and Nate’s production last year supports their belief. He did need a few games to get back to form, but by the fourth game he was playing like he always had. Even though the change to playing Mike turned out to be unnecessary, it’s also been a key to his new professional role as the future MLB of the Denver Broncos: in a relatively weak ILB class, his 2010 experience permitted Irving to display his talents at the position. Irving will have to take the position away from Joe Mays, who Denver has said will also get a shot at the Mike slot and who will be the starter moving into training camp. Mays has been working out with Brian Dawkins all offseason, and fully intends to keep the starting Mike slot that Denver has offered him a shot at, but Denver has also been explicit in their belief that whether it’s this year or another, Nate Irving is the guy that they want as the centerpiece of the linebacking corps. Once trainer Steve ‘Greek’ Antonopulos signed off on his health (in case anyone was wondering why Greek was in the draft room, he coordinated with the medical side on players where there might be concerns), Irving was a priority. His flexibility on position makes him even more desirable as a player. And, if Irving doesn’t play Mike this next year, Will is a solid option. The attitude of a potential starting lineup of Von Miller, Mays and Irving would be singularly nasty, aggressive and hostile. In other words, about perfect.
“It was really not a big transition (in college, Will to Mike) because of the way our defense was set up; the (Will) and the (Mike) were both stacked linebackers inside the box,” Irving said. “The only thing I had to adjust was my vision. As a (Will), I see lot of things coming towards me from the sideline, but in the middle, they come from a lot of different angles.”
Apparently, he made the transition pretty seamlessly - Irving played well enough to end his 2010 season with 92 tackles, seven sacks and with 21.5 tackles for loss last season which ranked him sixth in the nation. He totaled 39.5 TFL over his college career, even though he missed 2009. Irving is also talented in coverage - he had a team-high four interceptions in 2008. Wherever you find the ball, you’ll usually find Irving chasing, stripping or catching it.
While different draft ‘experts’ ranked anyone from Martez Wilson to Quan Sturdivant to Greg Jones as the top inside linebacker of the 2011 Draft, Denver had their eye on Irving from the start. Brian Xanders commented,
“At ‘Mike’ linebacker, the inside linebacker in this new 4-3, he was our No. 1 ‘Mike’ linebacker. We are excited about him because his instincts are so good. He was a serious player who loved football. He had some off-the-chart numbers too; he had 44 tackles for loss (Note: over his college career, Nate actually had 39.5). He is a very productive player and when we had him in here (in April) you could just tell that he really loved football and was very serious about the game. When he met Mr. (Pat) Bowlen about bringing back the Orange Crush, he had a big smile on his face and he enjoyed that.” John Elway added, "Nate Irving is an instinctual MLB who is a good fit for the type of defense we are building. Tough and always around the ball."
Irving is a very intense player on the field - so much so that his nickname in college was ‘Predator’. This YouTube video gives you a pretty clear picture of why he’s called that. Additionally, he was a vocal leader of the Wolfpack defense, which made the move to MLB a natural. He redshirted his freshman year in college (2006), but in 2007 he had 52 tackles, and 27 of them came in the final four games. He was a starting linebacker for four of the last five games that season, only missing one start due to an illness. He notched five TFL in those five games. He also forced fumbles against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
The following season (2008) was a struggle at times - Nate injured his left ankle in a game against East Carolina, and aggravated it against Florida State. In all, he missed a third of the season, yet still managed to achieve 84 tackles. His four INTs were the most in history by a Wolfpack linebacker, and included a pick-six against Clemson on the first play from scrimmage. In his first game back from the ankle injury, against Duke, he had 10 tackles and a forced fumble. The following game against Wake Forest saw him scoring 11 tackles, including two tackles for loss and an eight-yard sack in NCS’s win.
While missing all of 2009 might have been a setback for him, he quickly showed in 2010 that he had been able to recover nearly all of his skills. By the fourth game of the season (at Georgia Tech) he was at full form. He ended that game with a career-high 16 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and two sacks. For that performance, he was named the National Defensive Player of the Week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation. He ended the season as a first-team All-American by Scout.com, second-Team by Walter Camp and a third-team All- American by The NFL Draft Report and AP. He was also a first-team All-ACC performer, recipient of the ACC Brian Piccolo Award, was named the nation’s “elite” linebacker by the College Football Performance Awards and was a semifinalist for the 2010 Butkus Award.
What Matt Russell, the Broncos' director of College Scouting - a Butkus Award-winning linebacker himself - saw on film was a player who is relentless in pursuit, who takes excellent angles to the ball, and who has a nice spin move that he uses to avoid OL players. He can play at any of the linebacker positions, and that’s a skill that Head Coach John Fox is said to treasure. It’s also true of sixth-rounder Mike Mohamed, although he’ll start as a special teamer with the Broncos.
Consider this: Von Miller can play off of either edge, hand down or standing up, and Denver has announced that they plan to utilize his skills by running a lot of under fronts, which will move Miller to the line of scrimmage. That would also place Robert Ayers, in essence, at defensive guard and it may in part explain their lack of aggression on picking up a DT, although if the board had fallen differently, they might have taken one. Miller will be moved around the formation and Joe Mays has both Sam and ILB experience, while Wesley Woodyard has played both ILB and Will. D.J. Williams can play Mike or Will, while both Irving and Mike Mohamed can play anywhere. The level of options that this crew could create is limited only by the coaches’ imagination. Irving, Miller and Mohamed all have good college-level skills in coverage, and WW has some skill there as well. Denver’s been missing coverage ability in their LBs, and that problem has been greatly diminished by this year’s draft.
NFL Draft Monsters had an excellent scouting report on Irving that’s worth reading through. Among other things, they noted,
He is a true physical presence and he has the ability to play multiple LB spots in the NFL. He is a punishing hitter that plays much bigger than his listed weight. His short area quickness and agility allow him to be an absolute force at the LOS. He not only can stack and shed in the hole, but he can also run around you. I don’t see him wowing at the combine, but on the field he plays fast and downhill. He plays the game with an attitude and his aggressive demeanor comes through with every hit that he makes. His incredible instincts allow him to dissect plays quickly which makes him even that much more dangerous.
They, like Denver, had him as the top ILB in the 2011 Draft. National Football Report added,
Shows excellent instincts and the ability to make plays in the backfield. Flashes good vision when attacking the line of scrimmage and shows ability to split gaps quickly. Absolutely loves football. Has a physical and violent playing style. Diagnoses plays quickly. Runs well & plays sideline to sideline. Is a strong tackler and plays fearless. Flows well to the ball carrier. Is a relentless pass rusher. If Irving checks out medically he should be a 3rd round pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
And he was, pick number three in that round.
Irving isn’t the kind of player who stands out at Combine, and he didn’t really participate other than meetings with teams and getting his measurements. He’s not that fast in the straight-line sense that the 40 measures - he’s the kind of player who takes good angles, doesn’t bite on play fakes and has a quickness that the 40 doesn’t measure. His arms are too long for his bench press reps to be expected to be impressive. However, at his Pro Day, he ran a 4.74-second 40, with a 1.71-second 10-yard and a 2.78-second 20-yard segment. His three-cone drill was timed at 6.97 seconds, and his 20-yard shuttle at 4.25 seconds - good numbers, but not exciting. He handled 27 reps in the bench press, which was higher than expected, and he had a 32.5-inch vertical leap with an 8’11” broad jump. Again - nothing was all that impressive, but that was to be expected. When you look at his game film, though, everything changes.
Nate set an NCAA record with eight TFL vs. Wake Forest during the 2010 season. He shoots gaps with both speed and control, keeps his eyes in the backfield and quickly diagnoses plays while on the move. While it doesn’t show up in drills, Irving has unusually good agility: He can change directions almost at full speed, a skill that makes him effective in defending the underneath routes that have tortured Broncos fans recently and in taking down ballcarriers in the open field. He’s been a good to very good zone defender and he’s been good in man-to-man coverage. Irving is a dedicated and hard-working player on and off the field, and a guy who enjoys both the film room and the weight room. You can expect him to continue to improve for a long time yet, but he’s likely to produce pretty much from the start.
Winners tend to continue to find ways to win and situations that allow them to. When Irving was a two-way player, including linebacker at Wallace-Rose Hill High School under coach Jack Holley, he led the team to a 10-0 start as a senior. He also notched 110 tackles, six forced fumbles, three sacks and one interception, as well as being in on 12 all-purpose touchdowns. He was an All-conference selection as well as a North Carolina Shrine Bowl selection. His college career just took that play to the next level. Life as a Bronco should let him continue to do the same.
When you look at the combination of Von Miller and Nate Irving as starting linebackers for the Denver Broncos in the next several years, it’s clear that the team has upgraded a position that’s been problematic for a long time. Denver has the players to be able to move them around from game to game and series to series, creating difficult mismatches for opposing teams. The four areas that John Fox and company identified as needing the most help immediately were these:
- More speed
- Better ball-hawks
- Better leadership
- A tougher, nastier on-field attitude
The linebacking corps additions alone show all of these. Von Miller may be a prankster off the field, but he’s an intense, fierce competitor while he’s on it. Nate Irving adds even more leadership, an extraordinary level of courage and a multi-talented player who can contribute even more sacks, stops, hurries and tackles for loss. The ability to play coverage has improved, and both Miller and Irving have shown a talent for forcing fumbles and living in the opponent’s backfield. With the addition of two new safeties - by many standards, the two best in this year’s draft - and the ability to move Miller and Ayers around, while creating more opportunities for Elvis Dumervil to get back to his old sack-happy ways, Denver’s defense has the potential to move up substantially in the rankings.
One thing is certain - no one in Denver’s locker room is likely to complain of minor injuries. If they do, Nate Irving has a picture that they ought to see. It’s a great reminder of the ease with which life can change, and an impetus to maximizing every chance to take advantage of the opportunities that they are being given. Coupled with the drafting of both Von Miller and the versatile Mike Mohamed, what was a weakness last year may be a strength of the defense. The two starting LB players alone improve pass rushing, coverage, attacking the run in the backfield, leadership and courage.
It’s about time that the league gets its act together and settles its labor issues. I’m feeling a serious need for OTAs and a training camp - I can’t wait to see these guys together on the field.