Banks Wants Dogs Riding High Into Stretch

He needn't go far since Maben is merely several stout kicks from campus. But when Johnthan Banks heads home for these rare in-season breaks, his ‘escape' from football takes him so much farther away than most any counterpart could imagine. This Bulldog goes to Dakota. Not the state; the horse Banks rides for relaxation most often.

"I rode Dakota yesterday," said Banks of his open-date downtime. "And we just got a new one, Sugar, but I'm still sticking with old Dakota right now."

Yep, over there around the Oktibbeha/Webster counties borders Banks and family have their own corral. Primarily quarter horses such as good old Dakota, and a few other bred to the saddle. "And we ride everywhere around Maben," said Banks. "People go by blowing the horn and hollering at me when they see me riding." In a friendly way, he means, since in a town—if an incorporated area of not quite 1,000 population merits the title even here in Mississippi—like Maben riding four wheels or four hooves is equally accepted.

"Where I try to ride at people sort of expect me," said Banks, adding though "If I know somebody's hunting I try to stay away."

Which makes a rather natural segue to Banks' much more familiar status as Mississippi State's play-making defensive back. He resumes this junior season Saturday with a road trip to Kentucky—now that's serious horse country—where the Bulldogs need their first SEC victory of 2011 to stay on the bowl trail. With the situation in mind, Banks and team did not waste an open week.

"It's just going back there and knowing how to play football, doing all our coverages and trying to get all the little things back right," said Banks, speaking for his defensive side of the squad. Far as the entire team, a 3-4 start and 0-4 league record are not what Mississippi State planned…but neither should it diminish Dog ambitions for the rest of '11.

"We're not looking back at all. We're looking ahead, trying to get better. We've got five games left and we're looking forward. Those games we lost are in the past and we're looking ahead, trying to go win some games."

Banks has certainly done his part from the cornerback position, with 41 tackles already and more notably his team-best five interceptions. He's picked a pass in all but the Memphis and Georgia games this season, giving Banks almost half of State's eleven total interceptions. Actually, Banks believes he should be credited with at least half that tally. See, last week against South Carolina it was Banks who got between target and toss at the goal line and basically ‘bumped' it volleyball-style to safety Nickoe Whitley.

So at the suggestion he at least be given an assist or something, "Well, I think I should have got the whole interception! I think I was going to catch it!" Banks grinned. "I made a good play on it and Nickoe came back and he made a great play of taking it from me! I'm glad Nickoe caught it."

Besides, Banks already had an outright solo pick of his own earlier as he caught a ball deflected this time by a Gamecock receiver. In the end zone, at that. It was his 12th interception in three, or really two-and-a-half, college seasons. And lest any suspect Banks picks on easy opposition, seven of his intercepts have come off SEC arms and another in the Gator Bowl versus Michigan. He rises, often literally, to the occasion.

Which raises the question of, haven't league quarterbacks learned by now not to challenge this splendid athlete who has better pass-catching skills than many true receivers? (Related to that, yes, Coach Dan Mullen has considered trying the junior ball-hawk on offense, but prefers him focusing on defense.) "Nah, ain't nobody throwing it away from me," said Banks. "You saw the guy catch a touchdown pass on me at Georgia, and South Carolina came out and threw it at me about five times in a row. So nobody is going away from me like they're scared of me!"

Naturally after South Carolina did throw the other way from Banks, for the winning touchdown, the second-guessing came fast and furious why the taller and stouter corner hadn't been matched on S.C. standout Ashlon Jeffrey. The uncomfortable answer is, he was…for much of the day and that very series right up until the third-down at State's four-yard line. It only took quarterback Conner Shaw a quick glance to see the size mis-matchup and use it for a high fade and catch made.

"I'm not going to question the defensive call, that ain't my job," said Banks. "Coach (Chris) Wilson knows what he wanted, Coach Mullen knows what he wanted, I'm not going to put myself in that position to say I should have been on Alshon. They get paid all that money to coach and if that's what they wanted, that's what they wanted."

Now Banks just wants to get back to business tacking and covering and, yes, intercepting. Whatever one thinks of that one call last game, Banks gives his staff credit for helping make his job that much more productive this junior season. "Well, Coach Wilson is making a lot of calls to help me to get into the right position. And Coach (Melvin) Smith is always on my butt about getting in the right position and running to the ball.

"The interception I got Saturday I was just running to the ball, I mean Coach Mullen is always on us about running to the ball, being in position, and just doing things right. That's all I've been doing, just trying to be a good football player and do things right."

Banks had done lots of things right since moving into the starting lineup in October 2009. The dozen interceptions, most obviously. And he has returned three of them for touchdowns, two of them back in '09 against some guy named ‘Tebow' and again this season against Auburn. Three career pick-sixes tie him for the NCAA active lead with a couple of competitors…including ironically enough his fellow State corner Corey Broomfield.

And the 12 total intercepts? "I think I'm like second, or third?" he said. Yes, he's tied for second on the MSU career list and in striking distance of the 16 by Walt Harris (1993-96). "I'm not going to lie, I do want to break that record! I do pay attention to that." What Banks said he doesn't attend to is lack of league and national honors, since he is missing from major award checklists.

"Awww, that's one thing I don't worry about. I mean, I ain't worried about all-American, all-SEC. I'm out here to make plays and try to help Mississippi State be the best Mississippi State can be. I'm not worried about the honors, all of that is all talk." Now it might seem he should really be worried about his cohort; Broomfield has nine interceptions and the three pick-sixes but none of either this season. Banks is getting to all the balls first and that surely must gripe his classmate?

"No, Broom is Broom! He's going to be positive and he's going to pick up for me. Broom is about to get it going right here; him, Charles, all of them." Because along with Charles Mitchell and Whitley and others, this State secondary rotation now has 33 picks among them.

Ironically Banks admits that he was close to never making a pick or a play for that matter. Recruited by one State staff he signed with another and the adjustment was much tougher than he expected. Nothing about college ball came as easily as all sports had back in Maben.

"I came from a little 1A high school, I'd never really worked like that, Coach Mullen and Coach (Matt) Balis pushed us all hard. I about packed it up and almost left. But I talked to my family…and Coach Mullen wasn't never going to let me leave! I was just a baby on campus. But guys like Charles were always there for me when I needed them. So I'm just happy I stayed with it."

So is State, and the small-burg boy has found a good fit after all with this squad. With this secondary, especially. "I love these guys and these guys love me, and it's just something fun we like to do. Like talk about Charles' head!" At which Mitchell, playing a golf game on his iPad while awaiting a turn for interviews, just shakes said head and smiles.

"I could call any of those guys at three, four o'clock in the morning outside of football, something is wrong, and it doesn't matter," said Banks. "That's pretty much anybody on this team. The way Coach Balis made us work out in summer and the things he had us do made us come together as a team, as a family. That's not just corners and safeties, that's the team. I've never been close to a group of guys like I am these guys and I'm glad I got a chance to experience that and just keep on bonding."

Such bonds have developed that Banks has even roped teammates along on his favorite getaway. "Yeah, Charles has come out and rode; Broomfield, Louis Watson," Banks reported. "K.J. Wright came out and rode last year. Fletcher Cox came out and rode, I didn't think I had a horse to hold him up! We all had fun." Well, almost all. "Broom got on and he got scared, he thought the horse was leading him to the barbed wire fence and he didn't take that chance!"

The Bulldogs aren't of any mind to take chances with post-season fate, either. Much as Mullen presents each and every game as a ‘must' win this week is of even more obvious importance. State has won the last two tests with Kentucky, and come away from Lexington with wins in the most recent two trips as well. These streaks needs extending.

"We just have to go out there and execute the gameplan, and just play hard," said Banks, who wears proof of hard play with a brace on his left wrist. Nothing new, he said. "It's good. It's football, you get banged-up a little bit and get sore a little bit, but it's good. It's been hurting all season." And not kept him from tacking and covering and intercepting, obviously. Now if Banks can just take advantage of another opportunity Mullen has offered, putting him at punt return midway of the junior season.

"That was one of my specialties in high school. But it hasn't worked out very well here on the D-I level! My first year doing it I'm trying to make sure I catch the ball first, and if I get a chance I'm going to try to break it."

Meanwhile Banks and buds are coming off their own short break, rested and presumably refreshed by whatever it was they did. Such as getting introduced to the new horse in Banks' stable. However sweet Sugar may prove, though, it won't change who Banks saddles up most.

"Can't nobody stop old Dakota, he's like Secretariat!" proclaimed Banks proudly, words that might ring awry where he is headed this weekend but no matter. Horses for courses, as they say, and certainly the more prim and proper folk around Lexington would blink at Banks' riding uniform.

"You might see me out there barefoot, shorts on, and a baseball cap," he smiled. And no, "I ain't going to wear no cowboy hat!"

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