Mississippi State is assuredly happy to have Banks controlling his corner of the field. The junior goes into this final month of the 2011 regular season with five interceptions and 13 total passes defended. That isn't just the best season of his Bulldog career already, it almost equals the 17 total PDs of Banks first two varsity seasons.
It has also shot State's secondary standout into national awareness. The MSU media relations staff had been pushing hard to have Banks included on the Thorpe watch list after pre-season honors evaded him. The award will be presented on December 8.
Just don't look for Banks to change his on-field approach to curry favor with Thorpe voters.
"I pay attention to it a little bit but I'm not going to let it get to me. That stuff motivates me to go even harder and just try to work on my technique and get everything down to a ‘t'. All I want to try to do is win these last four or five games and get us to a great bowl game."
Banks is the third Bulldog to make the Thorpe finalist roster, but the first since safety Pig Prather in 2001. That was a year after cornerback Fred Smoot was a finalist. Though spread over a dozen seasons the trio share a common position coach.
"John has played pretty good, now," said corners coach Melvin Smith. "And he's played pretty good since he was a freshman. So it doesn't surprise me he's on that list. I just still think John can play so much better. He's playing good but I think he can really make a difference. I expect him to make a big-time difference for our team down the stretch."
This is actually Smith's second season having Banks to himself. As a true 2009 freshman the Eupora native broke into the lineup at free safety, becoming a starter by game-six. In game-eight he exploded into the MSU record book with pair of interceptions returned for touchdown against #1-ranked Florida. He added a third pick-six this past September at Auburn, tying him for the MSU career record with fellow corner Corey Broomfield.
That was as a cornerback though, the position Banks moved to in spring 2010 and has stayed at despite some practicing this past camp as an extra safety. For that matter his 47 tackles this season and a couple of sacks, including off a blitz this past weekend at Kentucky, sure look like a linebacker in action.
"John is long and lanky, I've always thought he was a corner," Smith said. "I know other people have seen him as a safety; I see Nickoe Whitley as a safety, Charles Mitchell at safety. I don't see John the same way. He's a really good d.b. He can play safety, he can play corner, I think he's a defensive back."
Actually, there was a time Smith wondered if he might not get to coach this kid at all. "I really thought he might be a receiver at first, when I had him in drills he jumped up and caught a ball with one hand." Banks recalls that day well himself.
"Coach Smith was standing there talking to me, a guy threw the ball and I just reached up and grabbed it with one hand. That wowed Coach Smith, he likes that type of stuff. He'll argue with you about it! But he likes that type of stuff."
What Smith disputes, albeit with humor, is Banks ‘playing' at catching passes more than intercepting them during informal secondary drills. More specifically, how Banks prefers to make his picks one-handed as if snaring a baseball (yes, he was a capable guy on the diamond back in the day, too). It's not taught technique of course, but…
"It's just something we do to have fun, everybody gets out there and challenges each other. Charles, Broom, we all see who is the best at doing it and if we can get somebody's attention. We just have fun." And at heart Coach Smith enjoys watching how Banks so easily controls a ball with a single paw. Not even the legendary Smoot was so smooth.
In fact, "He's probably in my opinion the best one," said Smith of his Thorpe trio. Tall talk considering that Smoot made All-American and Prather was first-team All-SEC. But fact is Banks can be about as physical as Prather, and is taller and rangier than Smoot with easier speed getting downfield. He'll leave such talk to others of course.
"I know Smoot was a great player, and I ain't going to compare myself to Smoot around Coach Smith! But he is always on me about working hard and getting better and keeping going. I don't like to try to compare myself to nobody, I want to be Johnthan Banks. I want to be the best Johnthan Banks I can be day-in and day-out."
Though Banks admits to one honest ambition: he knows the school interceptions record is 16, by Walt Harris (1992-95). Banks has a dozen picks in two-and-a-half seasons and wants that record, if possible before this season is out. He had his five interceptions in a six-game stretch but came away from Kentucky with none. For that matter Mississippi State didn't get a turnover of any sort in the last game. Besides that, a backup quarterback was 26-of-33 passing against the Dog defense which would seem cause for concern.
Not to Banks. "We don't worry about stats. One thing about our defense, if you noticed Kentucky only scored one touchdown. We ain't looking for stats, we're looking to go out and stop people from scoring, and getting a win." That applies to the whole defense too, a unit that has strung three solid games together now and seems to be rounding into expected form. Or the form they expected of themselves, that is.
"I mean, we've got some maniacs on defense!" Banks said. "Guys who want to be great and guys who want to stretch their game to the next level. Guys that want to take this program to the next level. We're just all out there flying to the ball and having fun and making plays."
Should Banks keep on making his plays, post-season honors should follow. "Not many players are playing better than him, and he plays in the toughest league in the country," Smith said. "He's one of the top guys as far as defending balls, defending in space."
It hasn't been an easy 2011 for Banks though, beyond the football field too. His alma mater suffered serious damage in the spring storms, and Banks himself had to worry about his own home—and specifically his horse herd—when the terrible tornadoes came through. Fortunately his family was spared, and rebuilding has proceeded at East Webster.
"I go by the school when I can. The morning after the storm came through we met up at the school, everybody bonded together as one. They're getting everything fixed up and it's looking good for our program." Note the ‘our' part because Banks takes such things seriously.
"He's wise beyond his years," Smith said. "He cares about his schoolwork, he cares about his family, cares about horses, I think sometimes he cares about me! He cares about his teammates, if we don't do good he really feels bad."
The answer then, is simple. Keep up the good work so that both wins and awards will follow Banks around the rest of this junior season.