ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Perhaps no Bronco has as much to gain when training camp begins as Nate Irving, who spent organized team activities working with the first unit at middle linebacker.
It's a spot that many expected would have already long been his.
Irving has always had the expectation of being a key contributor to the team; that goes with being a third-round pick of a team that was coming off a 4-12 season, as he was in 2011. That hasn't been the case, beginning with a rookie season when he backed up at middle linebacker. Some onlookers thought Irving would step in and start, and he might have if he'd had a full offseason to work, but the lockout cost him crucial preparation time during organized team activities, and his window temporarily closed.
A shift to strong-side linebacker followed for 2012; he wasn't going to start there, not with Von Miller atop the depth chart. But the middle spot was wide open this spring, and the first opportunity went to Irving, giving him ample chance to dismiss chatter that he has been a disappointment relative to his draft status.
"In Nate's defense, (he) has not had a great opportunity yet. He'll get that this year," Broncos coach John Fox said during OTAs. "I see great growth in him already."
But that guarantees him nothing -- not a place in the starting lineup, and not even a roster spot.
"It doesn't mean anything, because all it is is the opportunity. They didn't give me the spot, they didn't tell me, 'It's yours to lose,' or anything like that," Irving said. "They just gave me the opportunity, and with the opportunity, I'm looking to take advantage of it.
"I don't want to just go out and just lay an egg and just roll over and give it up. I think the opportunity that they've given me will make the team better, because it's competition at the 'mike' (middle) spot, and competition always makes the team better."
How Irving plays is only part of the equation; the Broncos want him to lead, too, even though the middle linebacker is unlikely to play more than 40 percent of the snaps, as the Broncos work a majority of plays in nickel and dime packages.
"He is really taking over a leadership role as far as that middle linebacker position," Miller said.
But it's a quiet leadership in certain spots, Irving insists.
"You hang around me, you'll see I'm a pretty mellow person. I'm only loud actually in a game, or when I'm playing video games, or when I'm joking around in the locker room," he said. "So I'm getting used to being loud out here in practice, but I've still got to work on it."
He'll get encouragement from others, starting with linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a long-time special-teams captain.
"A lot of players said to be loud [and] talk, especially 'Wood,'" Irving said. "He's been helping me out through this whole thing, since I first got here. He's been helping me a long time, and a lot with defensive calls and being more loud, being more vocal and working out in the weight room and everything like that."
That's what the Broncos hoped to eventually see from Irving. How well he continues to do that will determine the extent of Irving's role, and whether he'll live up to his original billing.