NC State sophomore David Amerson has gone from a heralded high school safety in 2009 to playing cornerback with the Wolfpack and leading the country in interceptions with eight this season.
The transformation from Rivals.com four-star prep safety prospect to All-ACC and All-American cornerback candidate has been impressive. To put things in perspective, Amerson's eight interceptions going into NC State's game at Florida State today are double what the Seminoles defense has produced this season.
The rangy and athletic 6-foot-3, 194-pounder has picked off four passes in his last two games — Central Michigan and Virginia — and has had two interceptions in three different contests this season.
"That is a huge number, but he's worked hard and he's put himself in position. Nothing is surprising when you do things that way," said NC State defensive backs coach Mike Reed, who recruited Amerson out of Greensboro (N.C.) Dudley High.
Amerson started nine out of 13 games as a true freshman last year when cornerbacks Rashard Smith and Jarvis Byrd missed the season with knee injuries, but didn't get any interceptions. He credits the switch from boundary cornerback to field corner this season for helping him get more opportunities.
"I think I'm a little smarter and faster, too," said Amerson, who has 35 tackles this season. "I'm in the field now, so there is more opportunity to make plays. I think it's working out good for me."
That last comment is an understatement. Amerson's play-making ability and closing speed make him a threat to change the momentum of any game.
He helped spark the 28-14 Virginia win last Saturday with a 12-yard touchdown return on his second interception against the Cavs, capped off by a big plunge into the end zone.
"I saw him run the route and I drove the route, but thought he was going to catch it," said Amerson on his second pick. "I was going to rip it out, but he [Virginia wide receiver Darius Jennings] dropped the ball and it was up in the air. I just snagged it and tried to get into the end zone. In my head, as soon as I caught it, I said I was going to dive in there. I knew it would be tough to get in there and it worked."
NC State coach Tom O'Brien hopes Amerson not only breaks his current tie with Art Rooney, who set the Wolfpack single-season record of eight interceptions in both 1937 and 1938, but also breaks the ACC record.
"When you look at eight interceptions in seven games, that's a pretty big accomplishment," O'Brien said. "That's a pretty good record to have right now. Hopefully, he can get three more and get up to where [North Carolina's] Dre Bly was in 1996 with 11."
O'Brien also relayed a strong statement from NC State linebackers coach Jon Tenuta, who has coached numerous future NFL defensive backs, especially at Ohio State. Amerson won't be draft eligible until after the 2012 season.
"Talking to Jon Tenuta, he thinks he's one of the top five corners that he has ever been around talent-wise, and he's been around some good corners," O'Brien said.
One of the areas where Amerson has made strides is in the film room. The more he picks up on film, the better anticipation he'll have to make big plays.
"You want to look at formations and study splits," O'Brien said. "Is it a big split, a numbers split or a hash split? What does a receiver run from the splits he is in? Maybe they can pick up a clue where his feet are. They are looking for all different things. They look for how they come off the football. As they study the guy, you get into what his patterns are."
The viewings of Florida State's last few games would reveal a potent passing attack led by a cadre of wide receivers for junior quarterback EJ Manuel to throw to. NC State does catch a break with freshman sensation and leading wide receiver Rashad Greene likely out with an ankle injury.
"Florida State is a tough team, and I know that we have to go in there and play a lot of defense," Amerson said. "They have fast receivers and fast running backs. We definitely have to be on our toes."
Amerson's teammates believe he'll be more than ready for the challenge against Florida State or any other future opponent.
"David Amerson is a great player and a great guy," NC State fifth-year senior defensive tackle Markus Kuhn said. "He works hard every day, and it pays off for him. It's great to have him."
NC State redshirt junior quarterback Mike Glennon marveled at Amerson's second interception against Virginia, which he returned for a touchdown.
"This kid is the real deal," Glennon said. "David is a great player. Once he had that, I knew the game was over. The defense had a really great game, specifically the second half."
NC State fans have half-joked about there being an "Amerson Island" in reference to "Revis Island," which is named after New York Jets star cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Amerson is now getting asked after games about why teams even dare throw in his direction.
"I can't really say what they are thinking," Amerson said. "I just go out there and play. Hopefully, I make plays."
Amerson was a prep standout because of his ability to create plays, but he did it at free safety at Dudley High.
Rivals.com ranked him as the No. 16 safety and No. 206 overall player in the country. He picked NC State in a tough recruiting battle, which involved Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Clemson and North Carolina.
Amerson went out for high school football for the first time his junior year, and had 60 tackles and nine interceptions. He added another six interceptions his senior season. He showed off his athleticism at the Shrine Bowl Combine at Burlington (N.C.) Williams High in May 2009. Checking in at 6-1 and 177 pounds, he clocked a 4.48-second 40-yard dash, recorded a 35.7-inch vertical jump and did 10 reps at 185 pounds on the bench press. The combination of high school production and impressive athleticism made him a top target for NC State.
"We had him in camp," O'Brien said. "As he went through the camp and went through all the drills, we had no question at all that he could play at the highest level of the ACC at corner. What he played in high school was not very significant for us, one way or another, since we had him in camp."
Reed helped land Amerson for the Wolfpack, and always viewed him as a cornerback prospect. The injuries to Byrd and Smith last year sped up the process in playing Amerson.
"I recruited him as a corner and knew exactly what he'd be," Reed said. "I watched him in high school and had a good idea where he was going to play.
"David has made great strides and is still improving and still learning the game. There is still a lot of room for improvement."
O'Brien often points out what a quick learner Amerson is after getting beaten a few times earlier in the season. The 34-27 loss to Wake Forest Sept. 10 was particularly rough for Amerson.
"He got burned a couple times early in the season on a double move, but he has worked hard to not let that happen because he is so aggressive," O'Brien said. "All those little things, like the studying off the field, are coming into play right now for him.
"He has quick feet and great hands and good instincts. He is a student of the game. That is the thing that is the difference."