Banks, Bulldogs Riding High To Gator Bowl

Almost any player of a bowl-bound ball club will say he intends to briefly get away from football during the Christmas vacation. Johnthan Banks, now, he really means it, including his holiday viewing habits. "We've been here so much, I don't even watch football."

Believe it or not, Banks was serious about tuning-out on the game over the short break between the end of campus bowl camp and arriving Sunday in Jacksonville for Mississippi State's date with Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Maybe teammates were checking the tube for college and pro games; Banks figured he had better things to do for a few days.

"Go home, chill with my family, chill with my girlfriend and her family, just relax and take a little bit off from football," he said. "I don't even take time to try to watch it, when I'm off I try to spend time with my family or ride my horses or something."

Whoa, there… Ride horses? Indeed Banks does saddle one of the family steeds and trot around the Maben, Miss., area. "We've got about twelve horses," he said. "People see me out riding, they go by blowing the horn or hollering at me." Those who do pass Banks are most likely to see him on his favorite mount Dakota, a gelding quarter horse.

Back on the football field now, opponents who want to blow by Banks will probably need to be on their own horse, of course of course. In his second Mississippi State season Banks has built on a fast freshman start, compiling 50 total tackles this year which is fourth-best of the entire Dog defense. He picked off a pair of passes with five more breakups, forced one fumble and scored an official sack by blitzing off the corner.

But then blitzing is nothing new for Banks. After all, he spent his rookie season at safety, taking over the starting job mid-2009. The emergence of redshirted classmate Nickoe Whitley as a starting safety this year allowed Banks to take his talents over to cornerback where he opened eleven of 12 games. Yet last week there he was back practicing in centerfield again, as part of Coach Dan Mullen's mixing-and-matching during early bowl camp work to judge players for spring positioning.

"It was fun," said Banks. "I don't know what Coach and them are doing (for 2011) but it was fun. Like I told everybody, I'll play anywhere they put me, but it was fun to get back there in the middle of things." By the same token, come Saturday when the Bulldog defense lines up against Michigan, "I expect to start at cornerback." Expect, he said, while allowing for pre-game adjusting.

"Yeah, we've got six guys at cornerback that can play. And if I don't start I don't really care because I know whoever starts is going to go out there and do the job." Banks can afford this calm approach to playing time because he's certain to see the field in some State scheme on New Years Day. By the way, what might that be?

Banks grins and only offers generalities. "Coach Diaz has a really good gameplan. I mean, we'll just go out and play our defense. Go out and execute." OK, so no specifics are forthcoming. Then again the Wolverine offense presents a pretty straight-forward proposition for planning. Find that little guy who takes every direct snap and keep him in front of you…somehow.

"We know he's fast!" Banks said of UM quarterback Denard Robinson. "Fast, and can make big plays. He makes things happen with his legs, he's got a pretty good arm, so we're looking to go out there and contain him and play good football and come out with the win." Well, the concept sounds simple enough. It's that pesky matter of execution which is a whole ‘nother matter. Even for a Bulldog defense that in two seasons has faced three Heisman Trophy playmakers, Robinson is special.

"I can't remember anybody but Auburn like that. Well, you could say Alcorn State, they have a pretty good quarterback that could run the football. But besides Auburn we haven't played anybody like him," said Banks.

"But Coach Diaz and Coach Wilson and the rest of the defensive staff, they've put in a good gameplan. It's just on us to go out and execute."

Should the Dogs execute well enough in all areas to leave Jacksonville with the bowl trophy, it will mark a successful end to the 2010 season and a flying State start to 2011. Yes, Banks admits, he has thought ahead to next year's team potential. Farther, even. The Gator Bowl is another stage in a process he expects to achieve really great things before he and Mullen's first recruiting class is all done.

"I mean, we're trying to go to the national championship. We're going to take it one step at a time, we got a real good bowl this time and we're going go to a better BCS bowl game next year. And maybe the national championship game by the time I'm a senior."

Bold Bulldog ambition, sure. But given how quickly things have turned around on and off the field in just two years, Mississippi State might just have the horses for that sort of championship run.

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