Now, as Slay enters his third season with the Wolfpack, the junior from Ashburn, Virginia says he is ready to contribute in a big way on a defense that is looking to improve from a much improved 2010 campaign.
"I'm very confident in where we are right now," Slay said. "We have a good defense, we have good players out there starting and we have good guys behind them. Those backups are ready to step up and play too."
Having been one of 'those backups' during each of his first two seasons, Slay said he knows what younger players like Thomas Teal, A.J. Ferguson and others are going through. Becoming a contributor is a process that changes from year to year, not something that happens overnight. For Slay, the best approach is to take things one day at a time.
"You just try to get better every day and it's my third camp," he said. "I know the defense so basically I'm just trying to improve from last year and keep growing on a day-by-day basis."
As a freshman in 2009, Slay saw action in 10 games and played a season-high 18 snaps against Gardner-Webb and Virginia Tech. Last season Slay started in the season-opener against Western Carolina and saw action in 12 games. He played at least 20 plays nine times as a sophomore, tallying 24 tackled and five quarterback pressures.
Slay said the experience of playing on two units that had wildly different results has him prepared for anything in 2011.
"Two years ago our starters now were young guys stepping in for injuries and now those guys all know how to play," Slay said. "They all know what to expect. We're just trying to build on last year. We want to get better and keep together as a team."
Looking back at his experience playing as both a freshman and a sophomore, Slay said it's somewhat surprising how different things look entering year three.
"In year one the speed of the game is so different," he said. "In year two, you kind of know what to expect so you try to make sure you know your assignments. By year three you should know everything. You are comfortable with the speed of the game, you know the defense. So mistakes should be very limited."
The importance of limiting mistakes got even more crucial for Slay in particular when Tom O'Brien released the depth chart for the Liberty game Monday afternoon.
Because of J.R. Sweezy's injury and subsequent surgery, Slay was promoted to a starter alongside senior Markus Kuhn. And while Slay admitted he's excited to start, he said he knows there are no guarantees even with Sweezy being out as much as four or five weeks.
"Nothing is for sure," he said. "I don't know for a face that I'm going to start in week two. I just have to go out there and do my job and keep playing. I'll keep working as hard as I can until J.R. comes back and the coaches will make the decision about who is going to play."
As NC State makes its final preparations for Saturday's season opener, Slay said the pieces are in place for the Wolfpack to improve on its 2010 season.
"We won nine last year, we want more this year."