RALEIGH, N.C. -- Audie Cole has always loved to hit. Since he's been at North Carolina State, the former Golden Gloves fighter has been doing it with pads.
A boxer in high school, Cole has found a home as a linebacker at North Carolina State.
He's one of the top tacklers for the Wolfpack (3-0) and will play a focal role in their defense during this week's Atlantic Coast Conference matchup with ground-oriented Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-0).
"When you're having fun playing football, it's hard to lose," Cole said. "That's the only way to have fun, is by winning."
Especially if those victories come with plenty of hard hits.
It seems Cole always has had a thing for contact sports, whether they're football, baseball or boxing. His high school boxing coach back in his hometown of Monroe, Mich., thought he could've been a contender in the ring, but he knew Cole's heart was with football.
He says he's given up boxing because he can't find anyone in Raleigh with whom he could spar, though he admitted he did once trade a few jabs during a trip home.
"I'm kind of retired, I think of it as," Cole said.
Instead, he's saving those hits for the football field.
N.C. State's stats list Cole as the team's leading tackler with 18, though the ACC credits Terrell Manning with 18 and Cole with 17. Cole's total includes a 12-stop performance two weeks ago at Central Florida in which he also had three stops behind the line of scrimmage, one sack and an interception.
That may have been the breakout night for Cole, a redshirt junior who's in his second season as the starting strongside linebacker and is flourishing under new position coach Jon Tenuta - a coaching lifer renowned for his propensity to blitz.
"It definitely has to do with maturity as well," Cole said. "All the years, everything I've learned, it's all started to come together. Everyone's playing fast. They always say, 'If you think, you're wrong,' so that's what we're trying to avoid."
Cole has joined Nate Irving, who missed all of 2009 when he was seriously injured in a car wreck, and Manning to form the core of one of the ACC's top defenses. N.C. State ranks third in total defense and second in scoring defense, allowing averages of 294 yards and 15.7 points through three games. They're a big reason why the Wolfpack are off to their best start since 2002 when Philip Rivers was under center.
"I think all three linebackers are good players," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. "Certainly the guy that they missed, Nate, coming back is a big help for them. ... They're all good players. They've got a good linebacking group."
If the Wolfpack considers Cole as the quarterback of their defense, that would make sense. Cole was a high school quarterback who didn't really begin to think like a linebacker until midway through last season.
And while he's feeling more comfortable on the defensive side of the field, he recognizes that he - and his teammates - still have plenty of room for improvement.
"Things became a lot easier, and I felt like I began making plays that I should have been making the whole time," Cole said. "I've still got a lot to work on. I'm still not near where I can be, and that goes for all of us. We're all still making too many mistakes, and that's what's hurting us right now. If we can cut down those mistakes, we're going to be pretty good."