SPARTANBURG -- Nate Salley can't help but shake his head when asked about his 2006 season.
Honestly, it's fairly improbable to imagine he was going to be the Carolina Panthers' starting strong safety in 2007 after he was cut less than a year ago.
But while the path taken by Salley has been circuitous, he's come even farther in terms of his readiness.
"It was just a roller coaster," Salley said of his rookie year. "Just an up-and-down of emotions, and it was hard but I had to keep a positive attitude through it all."
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He was chosen in the fourth round of last year's draft out of Ohio State. He came to camp and got stuck behind veteran Shaun Williams.
Then he got cut, and despite his high draft status, no other team made a play for him. So the Panthers put him on their practice squad, he was promoted two weeks later and spent the rest of the season watching and playing special teams.
Panthers coach John Fox said Tuesday he almost moved him into the starting lineup last year (most likely for the uninspiring Williams), and it was quite a year.
Now there's no question he's the guy -- they made no moves to provide competition -- and he's a little taken aback.
"It's like night and day," Salley said. "I was very excited coming into last year, but you don't know what to expect. Now I come in, got a better feel for the playbook, and you know what they expect of you. This year, it's totally different. Last year I didn't even know what they expected of me so I just kind of came out and played ball.
"Now I know there's some pretty high expectations on me, I know people are expecting me to step my game up. I've always had high expectation on myself too."
As he was being interviewed, veteran safety Mike Minter passed by and listened in, offering his stamp of approval.
Because even though everyone expected the Panthers to make a play for safety (or two) in the draft, that never happened. Since that weekend, Minter has expressed extreme confidence in Salley, which extends to the coaching staff.
Defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said Salley's more comfortable with the nuances of the Panthers' defense, with the fine points such as alignments and recognition of offenses.
"First of all, Nate always was a smart guy," Trgovac said. "Nate picked up the defenses quick, but the little things that make the difference between being an average safety and a good safety, he's really starting to pick up. He's a smart kid, he's a studier. That's where I see the biggest thing.
"At times last year, we'd call a coverage and he'd only worry about that coverage. But now that things are starting to click with him ... That always happens, some guys get it faster than others. But he's a quick learner and we're pleased with that."
For now, Salley's easing into the pool from the shallow end. When the offense is installing plays in training camp, they'll often run it several times in a row so they can learn it. That naturally makes it easier for the defense to see what's coming.
But Trgovac said he's noticed that Salley's learning what he needs to, and is far better prepared to play than he would have been as a rookie. The Panthers' coordinator talked to old fried Jim Tressel (Salley's coach at Ohio State) prior to the draft, and came away convinced he could play.
But there were still times he looked overwhelmed. He's starting to move the other direction, catching everyone's eyes when he ran with Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith and picked off a pass two nights ago, showing good movement for a guy with a stout frame.
When they drafted him, they knew he could come up in run support and tackle. The question was going to be how he could cover, and whether he'd be the liability in the deep middle that other players at his spot have been.
"He made a real nice play down the sideline the other night," Trgovac said, breaking into a grin. "We're pleased with his effort and the improvement in his overall game as a safety."
Still, if the Panthers had been able to do what they planned, he might not be getting this opportunity. They got caught on the wrong side of runs of safeties in the first, second and fifth rounds -- with the last of the first-rounders going one spot before them -- unable to secure one of their biggest pre-draft needs.
Salley said he kept an eye on the draft, knowing it would impact his future significantly, but he didn't obsess over what might happen.
"I know people think I was at home going, 'Oh no, don't draft a safety," he said with a laugh. "But I just worry about what I have to do, and if I handle my business things will work themselves out.
"That was my thought process. No matter what they do, bring in a vet or draft someone, just handle my business, and everything will work out."
As he said that, Minter again grinned as he listened to his protégé, and offered another affirmative when Salley was asked if he was moving closer to earning the elder's trust.
"Tell him yes," Minter cracked.
And that's Salley's biggest challenge, now that he doesn't have to worry about making the team.
"I'm trying for him and the whole defense," Salley said. "I want those guys to feel comfortable with me. I'm going out there and working to make as many plays as possible, and I want those guys, when they see 33 back there, to know we're in good shape and not be nervous at all.
"That's my biggest thing, to gain their confidence. I know I had so much to prove."
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