Banks, Bulldogs Ready To Conclude '11 Camp

No, seriously. Johnthan Banks himself isn't certain. When the Bulldogs report for this afternoon's final practice of the spring, the veteran defensive back will await instruction on where he is to line up. "Well, I don't really know," he agrees. "I'm just back there where Coach tells me to go. And I'm just back there having fun!"

Easy for a veteran like Banks to say so. Then of course here two varsity seasons into an already-strong career, it is easy for the junior to have fun back there…wherever he is spotted. Over the final four, five practice days of spring work that has been at safety, the position where Banks made an immediate splash as a 2009 true freshman and ball-hawk.

But of course he began this spring at his '10 position of cornerback; nominally the left side but in Mississippi State's scheming working both corners of this defense. Sooo…what are we to call him now? Which is his primary position?

"I don't really care. I still don't know where I'm going to play but I don't care. I just go out here and compete and have fun."

From a coach's perspective the important portion of that statement is not so much Banks' willingness to move as they want. It is the ‘compete' part. See, it would be all too tempting for a proven play-maker such as Banks to look at his fall achievements those first two Bulldog seasons and, well, you know, dial back on the intensity in spring. He's bound to be playing somewhere, after all, why bust a gut—much less a more practical body part—to maintain such status.

Because, Banks reminds: this spring stuff is still playing the game even if the opposition wears your own colors.

"I just like coming out here and competing and having fun," he said. Besides, he adds, "Getting back there at safety helps me a lot at corner. I mean I eventually get back to corner. But getting back there and moving around, I learn both spots and I know the defense better. It just makes me an overall better player."

Becoming better would be a rather big 2011 deal, because Banks has been a pretty Dog-gone good player already. He was booked for immediate special teams duty as a true freshman the first five games, then on the sixth weekend found himself starting at free safety from then on. Banks accounted for 33 tackles in '09, broke up seven passes and intercepted four. Those picks were paired in consecutive weekends, against Middle Tennessee and Florida; but the latter outing was much the more notable as he returned both interceptions for touchdowns off 100 and 20 yards against some guy named ‘Tebow'.

Come September 2010 though and the Freshman All-SEC safety is starting at cornerback. And, thriving, with 54 tackles—fifth-most on the squad—as well as three more picks and a forced fumble. His only non-start was the Egg Bowl, but Banks rotated in for a couple of tackles. And he was back on his best game for the Gator Bowl with a second-quarter interception just after State had taken a 17-14 lead. What happened thereafter was summarized in the final 52-14 score.

Now here he is in spring 2011, already ranking among the top still-young playmakers in the conference and almost half-way to the program interceptions record (he'll be in a great race the coming two seasons with fellow junior and regular cornerback Corey Broomfield at nine). So there is still plenty motivation for personal progress at practices, Banks said of himself and the full secondary.

"We've had a pretty good spring. We come out here and work hard so I'm going to say we've had a pretty good spring."

An interesting spring, too, and not merely from his mid-camp move. Fans familiar with the defense know of course that this was not change just for change's sake, or lack of ability anywhere. It was a knee injury to rotation safety Nickoe Whitley that had coordinator Chris Wilson made some adjustments for drills. Whitley by the way could be back in some degree of practicing this afternoon for the final working day. Until spraining his knee, Whitley was running #2 at free safety behind senior Wade Bonner and was the #1 ‘nickel' man when Wilson would put a three-safety package on the field. Interestingly it was Broomfield who moved inside for the three-cornerback ‘nickel' package, leaving Banks at his corner in those cases.

Whatever the combination(s) the defensive backfield had a generally productive spring. As it should, said Banks.

"I mean, we've got two juniors and two seniors back there in the secondary. We know what to do, we just have to out and execute it and take our game to the next level." In fact that is what Wilson, along with secondary coaches Tony Hughes (safeties) and Melvin Smith (corners) have done; keep the pressure on to improve players who have made plenty of plays already.

"I mean that's the big thing," Banks said. "We've done been out there in all the SEC games, we know so much about the game right now. We've just got to make things happen, the way we're going to get to the next level is shutting everybody down and helping the young guys and doing everything right."

Yes, helping young guys who want their jobs, since the best spur to improvement is that same competition Banks enjoys. So even he has had to be on his cleat-toes in camp whether at corner, because veteran Marvin Bure has practiced very capably there; as well as safety where third-year soph Dennis Thames is itching to crack the rotation. In fact while Banks is talking to a writer, Thames routes-by to shout…something…over his teammate's shoulder.

Banks just laughs and when the reporter advises he tell his teammate to go intercept a SEC pass before barking, "Don't knock him, he can do it!" he said. Which is good news for secondary depth and versatility as Thames, Louis Watson, Archie Muniz, Asian Ruff,, work their way into safety rotations. And as much as Hughes enjoys having his '09 centerfielder this spring, Smith wants his 2010 cover-corner back. The ‘winner' in this staff room scramble might have to be settled by head coach Dan Mullen himself at some point.

And is Banks phased by working under his third overall coordinator in as many State seasons? Nope, not a bit. Sure, he's had the same position coach(es) all the way through and that has eased any such transitions. Yet this veteran applauded Wilson's promotion to overall charge of the defense. And while he doesn't technically play for him, that new linebackers boss Geoff Wilson has surely gotten positive attention from the secondary.

The larger point being that after shuffling the staff for another spring, Mississippi State's defense just keeps moving on in an improved direction.

"Being around those guys, they're going to keep you upbeat," Banks said. "I mean, they're going to get on your tail! But they're going to keep you upbeat and make you do the right things. They're going to demand that out of you and you have to execute."

Tuesday afternoon Mullen and staff will go over what the Bulldogs did or did not execute during their Saturday spring game and put a wrap on the semester's practice work. State was to have the 15th and final practice Monday but delayed it for weather until today. The practice is close to public and media.

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