Almost as quick have been raised expectations Slay may move into the Bulldog defensive lineup as a starter. He didn't open the Georgia game but as cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith said, "He played a lot from the second series on. I told Coach Wilson and Coach Mullen last week I felt it was time to play him."
The feeling proved correct. Slay, who had served special team duty and seen scripted snaps at the primary position, rewarded his coaches' faith with an excellent afternoon in Athens. Besides the big pick six in the final quarter, for the only Bulldog touchdown at that, Slay scored three tackles with one for loss and forced a fumble.
Then there were all the plays he was second or third to the tackle, not credited with any stats but certainly making his presence felt. "I was on every tackle," he said. "I'm fitting with the team so I'll hit with them. And (Georgia) kept making the bounce outside at me so that's why I got a lot of tackles." In fact he sounded more proud now of the hits than the pick-six, if possible.
"Yeah, besides covering I had to let them know I'm physical, too!"
Slay's prime playing time in game-five was earned firstly by his own efforts. Smith had seen the progress since early August, but any snap given the juco transfer would be taken away from one of State's two most explosive defensive playmakers. Put another way, sending Slay on the field required taking either Johnthan Banks or Corey Broomfield off it…no easy call given the combined 19 interceptions and six return TDs in those juniors' combined accounts.
Still this third junior was not signed to sit and Smith thought Georgia was the right time. Right place, too, for a Brunswick, GA, native. "You never really know how somebody is going to do, but you put him in a situation like he's going home," the coach said.
There was a notable additional factor though; Broomfield broke a thumb in the Auburn game and has played with it and through pain since. The cast worn in practices has hampered him, and as Smith said Broomfield doesn't like playing with even gloves on his hands much less heavier protection.
So a series into Saturday it was Slay taking over one corner. "He played really good the first half," Smith said. "Really good. I was proud of the way he played. And he's really practiced good. We just haven't had a lot of opportunities. Trusting somebody to play the field corner in our defense you don't just put a guy out there. Taking John from the boundary and putting him on the field it looks different. But sometimes you have to do things and Darius did a nice job."
And guess who was cheering Slay on more than even the coach? "Broom gave me a good credit," said Slay. "You know, he's been going through a hard time with his hand so I told him I had his back. If he got tired or anything I could come in for him."
That's a point to remember because it is hard to see State going back to a single set of cover-corners even when Broomfield is 100% again. Slay has proven he can take care of his area and himself, and make big plays to boot.
"We expect a good rotation to rest the starters, it won't be draining," Slay said. "They've been used to playing 90 plays, now it's cutting down. So we can make more plays than we used to do. We're all teammates so we're just trying to help everybody out, coming in and doing our job."
Naturally Slay expected to get in the game ASAP upon arrival. But because he couldn't come for spring practice the new guy began August camp a long step behind. Smith, who had recruited Slay out of high school before grades sent him to Itawamba C.C., saw something to be concerned about.
"I think he was really kind of second-guessing his decision to come here," the coach said. "You're a cornerback and a junior and we have two junior corners who both were freshmen all-Americans and are good players. Then you trust us as a staff to play you, and people know that if I play a lot of corners I'm not really sure who my corners are. It makes me have to rethink how I do things."
And that's a good thing, having three quality corners to use. As Slay continues to learn all the other things required for every-game responsibility the competition for snaps, much less starting, will only increase now. After all, Banks and Broomfield are #1s for obvious reasons. What a big breakout day has done for Slay seems to be settling his mind that he did make the right senior college choice (again), and that his skills will be used as the knowledge increases. To that end…
"It's film, all the studying your opponent real well so you know what will come," Slay said. "That week I had the splits so I knew what was going to come when I was out there." Seriously, he really knew what Georgia was about to do on that fourth quarter pass. "We were in man coverage and was looking up the field, I knew what route he was going to run so I just jumped it."
And went alllll the way back to the other end zone. Just like Broomfield and Banks have done, too. Now there's another Bulldog d.b. with quick pick-six skill for opponents to worry about.
"I'm still supporting Corey," Slay said. "When he hurt his hand I knew I had to step up my game more and practice harder even more. It's just a team thing. If he goes down I replace him, and he replaces me sometimes." Or maybe not replace; remember, Broomfield has been used before as a nickel-corner in blitz situations. With Slay available that package could return. A key is his picking up the tricks, all of them, to his trade in State's system.
"Because all corners can play both sides, you know, field or boundary. So we just had to learn. I'm more comfortable at the boundary because that's what I've been playing for the longest. But I would do just anything to get on the field."
MSU-ELLANEOUS: Coach Dan Mullen gave the day's practice a positive rating. "It was a good day today, I liked our attitude. Obviously Tuesday is our big full-padded work day, so we got a physical practice."…
Tuesday saw a familiar face at practice, observing. DE Pernell McPhee took advantage of an open week for Baltimore to visit campus. "I loved having him out there," said Mullen. "He's a guy that came in here, believed in what we do. To me it's a huge compliment to the program and makes me proud that he gets a bye-week and wants to come back and visit practice. That's an awesome thing and shows his belief in the program. He's great for these guys, about how hard you have to work if you want to succeed."
There were no reports of McPhee flashing a mock-landshark during his stay…
The MSU staff will be without an assistant recruiting coordinator the rest of the season following the resignation of Mark Ouimet. Hired by Mullen last spring out of Michigan, Ouimet will reportedly return there where his family resides. The staff aide had been charged by campus police in September for driving under the influence.
"Mark did an unbelievable job for us," Mullen said today. "It's a tough situation for him, he has a young son and his wife. I have a young son so I can empathize with his situation. To be away two years is a hard deal."
State will not rush a replacement though. "We'll wait, we have the people in place who spent time with Mark planning this out. This wasn't a happen-today deal, this is something we've talked about. A lot of stuff is organized and we have Lee Davis and Rockey Felker who can manage things until we move forward."