Salley got caught up in the competition for the open free safety spot on the OSU defense and did not play up to his capabilities in the team's preseason scrimmages. As a result, Brandon Mitchell opened the season as the starter.
"I lost my spot after the jersey scrimmage last fall," Salley said. "Brandon Mitchell played pretty well. After I lost my spot, I just decided to play looser and have fun with it. That is my game and I got away from that. I think I got uptight thinking about battling for a spot. I just had to go out and play the type of ball I know how to play."
Salley, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., did not pack it in, though. He regained the starting spot by the third game against N.C. State and held on to it for dear life.
"I was able to come back," he said. "The N.C. State game was my first start and from there I started every game. I felt I gained the respect of the seniors and they felt comfortable with me out on the field."
Salley, listed at 6-3, 215 pounds, gained a reputation as a heavy hitter. He ended up tied for fourth on the team with 77 tackles.
It is that hitting ability that may set Salley apart, said OSU secondary coach Mel Tucker.
"I feel confident that he can be a physical player," Tucker said. "I've seen him be physical in games when it mattered. I've never seen him shy away from any physical contact in practice and games. I know he's a smart kid, a good kid and a good character kid. What I'm looking for now is I need a leader. What I want now is consistency and performance, day in and day out and week in and week out. If he's going to be able to do that, he's going to have a really good career. He has a ton of ability and he‘s a hard worker. He cares to get better.
"In 2001 against San Diego State, we were down at halftime. We came out in the third quarter and Mike Doss laid a hit on their running back, who was the best player on their team. It seemed at that point to change the tide of the game a little bit. I think it's always great to have a physical presence on defense with your tackles, your inside linebacker and your safeties. That's really going to help you stop the run and give you a mentality of toughness and aggressiveness."
Salley's hard style has made him a favorite among his teammates as well.
"I tell Nate all the time he looks like Donnie Nickey," said linebacker A.J. Hawk. "Donnie played safety and weighed 225. I love Nate and everything he does. He's a hard hitter and that's what you want in the secondary. We have so much confidence in him and playing with him.
"I think it started with the big hit he had in the Washington game. He almost knocked himself out. With each game, you could just see that he was getting more and more comfortable."
Coming into his junior year, Salley is one of just four returning starters on defense. He views himself as a leader.
"I feel better and I feel stronger," said Salley, who gained 10 pounds after playing at 205 last year. "I spent the whole summer working out. I am more confident in my abilities now. I feel like I can hit people with reckless abandon almost.
"I like being able to be in control and to be looked at as a leader. It feels good that people have confidence and call you a leader."
Salley played all 14 games as a freshman, although he admits his strength level was not where it needed to be.
"When I came in, I needed to work on my bench press. I was kind of like, `I don't care about the bench. I'm going to throw my whole body at you,' " he joked.
Salley's reputation as a big hitter dates all the way to his childhood.
"It's been like that since little league," he said. "We used to have a hitting drill and I guess I layed out two or three of my best friends. The coach was calling me the Terminator."
Despite its youth, OSU opens the year as the nation's No. 9-ranked team. Salley said the Buckeyes can live up to that lofty ranking if they just mind their business.
"I know a lot of people feel we have some potential this year," he said. "I feel the same way, but you can't let that get into your head. You have to stay humble and work hard. The big plays, the hits and the interceptions will come if you just work hard.
"We know every team will come out and play their best game against us. We just have to give our best effort and stay focused. We have been working hard. It's been a long summer. We are ready to get into some game-time situations."