EDITOR'S NOTE: The following was the cover story in the Gameday program from Sept. 23, when the Broncos defeated the Raiders 37-21.
The three linebackers at the top of the Broncos' depth chart entered the 2013 season with a combined total of 31 starts.
All 31 belonged to the man in the middle, Wesley Woodyard.
Neither of his linebacker counterparts Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan had ever started an NFL game before, but with Woodyard's leadership, the unit quickly jelled into a productive and cohesive unit.
"I just tell guys, 'You never know what kind of opportunity you have at hand, so take advantage of it,'" Woodyard said of his advice to the young linebackers. "One of my veterans, Mario Haggan, told me, 'Hey, a lot of young guys aren't blessed with the opportunity to get a chance to play the game of football so early. It's an opportunity that you don't want to give up.'"
It wasn't long ago that Woodyard was a first-year, full-time defensive starter himself.
Filling in for a suspended D.J. Williams at the start of the 2012 season, Woodyard grabbed hold of a starting position and hasn't let go.
He was the only player in the NFL in 2012 – and just the 12th player in the last 30 years – to record at least 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions in a single season. He set career highs with 114 tackles, which led the club, 5.5 sacks, three interceptions and six pass breakups.
"I remember when I first came into the league, the chances of me making the team was a longshot," Woodyard said. "A few things happened for me to get out there on that field and I'm able to be put on the same level as guys that were drafted in the low rounds or undrafted guys and just lead by example."
Woodyard was once again voted a team captain by his teammates prior to the start of the 2013 season. He has served as a captain in each of his six NFL seasons, joining Floyd Little as the only players in Broncos history with that distinction.
After serving as a game captain as a rookie, Woodyard was elected a season-long captain in his next four campaigns as a special-teams representative. But after starting 14 games at linebacker in 2012, Woodyard's role on defense has increased to the point where he was chosen as a defensive captain this season.
His role as a leader has helped a position group that after Woodyard has a third-year player in Nate Irving and then a pair of second-year pros in Steven Johnson and Danny Trevathan as the longest-tenured Broncos currently on the active roster.
"I've never been the type of guy that likes to follow," Woodyard said. "I like to go out there and try to lead by example. It comes easy to me because I'm just being myself. I'm not doing anything that I wouldn't normally do."
Woodyard credits his mother with instilling those leadership qualities early in his life that have translated onto the field.
"If I didn't do something right, I was disciplined," Woodyard said. "I wasn't beat or anything, my mom was just real strict on always doing the right thing and being dependable. There were times that she couldn't be there at home with me and my brother and we had to do the right things. It's kind of the same on football field.
"Your coaches can tell you everything to do, but they're not out there on the field with you. You have to be accountable to your teammates and those are your brothers."
This season marks the first in which Woodyard has played middle linebacker in the NFL, after moving inside from the weakside, where he played to start his NFL career. But it's not the first time he'll be filling that defensive leadership role on the field.
"He's been helping me since I first got here – telling me everything I was doing bad," Irving said. "He's been giving constructive criticism. It's something that all players need. He's been there from the start giving that to me. It has helped me move forward."
Last season, Woodyard wore the communication headset even though he played weakside linebacker in the team's base defense.
In 2012, when the team deployed its nickel packages, Woodyard would move inside due to his versatility and ability to be effective against both the run and the pass. So his move to middle linebacker isn't a drastic change for a player who is used to playing all over the defense.
"He's one of the captains on the defense and he's been the signal caller for the last two years," Linebackers Coach Richard Smith said. "In our sub package last year, he always played the inside linebacker position. I think right now it has been a really good and easy carryover for him. I really like his speed and athletic ability at the position. He's looked like he's belonged there all along."
When Woodyard arrived at the University of Kentucky, he was a safety.
Then during his freshman year, he became a middle linebacker.
After that season he moved back to outside linebacker, where he played until this year.
All that experience has helped him become a more complete player and a better leader since he knows where his teammates are going to be on any given play.
"I think the more you can do it allows our defense to be a better defense," Woodyard said. "Whether that is moving to Will or moving to Mike or dropping back in coverage, it allows our defense to do more things. That brings it back to being accountable and being dependable."
His background not only as a versatile player but also one who rose from being an undrafted free agent to a key defensive contributor has helped inspire his teammates to do the same.
Woodyard was a special-teams standout to start his career, having led the team in special-teams tackles in three of his first five NFL seasons.
"It says a lot about him," Irving said of Woodyard's background as an undrafted free agent. "You see the hunger and the fire in him. He brings that out there to the practice field. It's kind of contagious and you feed off that when you're out there with him."
"We had a connection right off the bat," echoed Trevathan, who also attended Kentucky. "He has always been that guy that you can go to when you need help. He's easy to talk to. He's always been just like a brother."
As Woodyard continues his rise, he is looking to build off the confidence that he gained from his breakout season in 2012.
"In order to be successful in the NFL, you have to have confidence in yourself," he said. "It's not about being cocky, but to me it all revolves around the same thing – having confidence in yourself, enjoying the game of football and loving it. Those three things run hand-in-hand for me and without those three, I don't think you can last in this league for long."