"I expect a lot out of this group. I expect consistent, good performances." By the way, this group Smith refers too goes deeper than just the three seniors. Even the younger backups are potential top-flight cover men in their own right.
Still it is the top trio that Smith and coordinator Chris Wilson are building this secondary around…or within if one prefers. For excellent reason, not least their 22 combined career interceptions and 38 other throws broken up. Or the 311 total tackles including sacks and forced fumbles and recovered turnovers. Any single member of the troika is worthy of all-star honors this year, unless of course voters spread their picks around the entire group too much.
If an individual is most easily selected though it will be Banks. Not just because he is coming off a 71 tackle, five interception junior season though that is reason enough. It is simply that there is nothing a ‘skill' player could be asked to perform on a football field which Banks couldn't handle, well. He not only hits hard but finishes tackles like the best safeties and linebackers in this league; while leeching onto receivers with relentless ease and not losing sight of the ball. In fact, Coach Dan Mullen jokes about moving Banks over to receiver and nobody laughs because it obviously is within the senior's skill-set. He could even play a passable quarterback.
But moving Banks over to offense even a single snap might mean prying Smith off his ace corner's ankle. "How good is Johnthan Banks? He's the only guy I've ever seen intercept two balls in one game and run them back for touchdowns (Florida 2009). I have seen him make that stadium do something that I have never seen done before."
Banks has been making plenty of stadium occupants, home and away, sit up and notice. For a long time, too. "I'm old!" he can joke now. I know a lot, I'm trying to put my game to the top." Which is saying a lot given how high a level Banks has already been playing at. Smith doesn't even look at the total numbers of picks or tackles, but how Banks just has the knack for making plays against the best opponents. The big stage is where he shows up best, usually.
"I can't see anybody else having a better player on their team at his position," Smith said. "He is a high character guy who does everything that you asked him to do."
None of the above takes an iota away from what Banks' compadre Broomfield has done in his own three varsity seasons. In fact the older cornerback is grateful to have redshirted in 2008 just so they could share careers. And while Banks might be better known not to mention taller and stronger, it is Broomfield with his energetic style and absurd ‘heee-HEEE!' cackle that make him a favorite all around. Well, that and how he can play the game.
In fact through their first two seasons Broomfield had the edge in interceptions, with nine to Banks' six. Then Banks stole all those balls in 2011 and moved into the lead, and while Broomfield doesn't actually claim opponents were shying-away from his side of the field, well… What makes his play all the more impressive is how Broomfield belies his 180 pounds as a hard hitter able to bring down 230-pound backs routinely. And no Bulldog defensive back has a better knack for finding his way into the other backfield on a sneaky blitz against run or pass plays.
Smith has seen something else this summer. "As for the leadership on this team, this is the first time I have seen two senior corners on a (schedule) poster. Coach Mullen doesn't put guys on a poster that aren't leaders. But Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks are on the poster."
Slay is not on that poster, what with limited space and all those long-standing veterans on the roster. But the third senior cornerback certainly ranks with everyone else in terms of talent. Working in rotation last season, Slay showed why Mississippi State signed him back in 2009 and then re-signed him after two excellent junior college seasons.
Sharing snaps he still got in on 23 tackles, and while Slay intercepted just one pass it made the highlights as he ran it back for a touchdown at Georgia. So now all three of these corner-men have put points on the board for State. What pleased Smith maybe more was the all-around effort Slay put into the off-season duties.
"Darius had a really good spring on the football field and really did what I wanted him to do academically." The coach doesn't toss that last part in for show; grading out in the classroom was as important in 2012 as to grading out in the film room, for everyone including the long-timers.
"We had some academic objectives that we wanted and all but one of them accomplished them. We wanted to finish strong. Some kids that I really put pressure on academically responded well. I am really proud of them based on what they did off the field."
Given the sure-starting triplets in front of them it might seem tempting to younger cornerbacks to accept their backup status meekly. Not so. Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love went all-out in spring as if they saw open jobs…which next year they should certainly claim. Fans looking ahead worry about replacing the all-stars already here.
Smith takes the other viewpoint that the future is unfolding right now. So does Broomfield in fact. "Calhoun is one of those guys you should watch," Broomfield said. "Everybody is talking about me, but Calhoun is a guy you should watch. He's going to play a big role. And Jamerson Love is a sophomore who can play. It's hard to get on the field with this team and like Coach Mullen says you have to be on the special teams."
Which is as good an indicator as any just how talented Mississippi State's coverage clubs ought to be. Then there are even younger players coming into the picture who are bound to keep Calhoun and Love on their own toes. "I have some young guys that I like," Smith said. "Young, talented players."
But for 2012 it is the old, talented, proven players who will have all the corners covered for Mississippi State. And covered in a way which has their coach talking in all-time terms.
"The cornerback position is the best that it has ever been at Mississippi State."