Statistically Slay might just be that right now. He's already leading the FBS in picks as noted. Well, technically his four interceptions are tied for first place with guys from Western Kentucky and UCLA. The NCAA breaks that tie by return yardage though and his 86 puts Slay in first-first place. Meanwhile the entire Bulldog defense is tied, with Alabama and Kansas, for the team with the most total turnovers gained at 12 apiece.
Slay has obviously played his big part in putting this team at the top. He not only has the four interceptions but has recovered a fumble…oh, and blocked a kick for good measure. These efforts, not to mention the statistics, have shoved Slay into the September spotlight. Maybe even, if he has his way, for the full senior SEC season ahead.
That is presuming of course Slay receives the same sorts of opportunities to pick passes as he has through the first three games. It's no secret or even surprise how early in this season opposing offenses have gameplanned to avoid challenging Johnthan Banks. Who would want to test an all-American candidate? Well, maybe Auburn, who paid for it with one outright interception and another over-throw that came on a string to the star cornerback.
Generally though teams naturally tended to look toward the other side, where Slay works. To their detriment as it has proven. Jackson State watched Slay convert a long throw into a longer return, 52 yards for a touchdown in the season opener. Auburn's Tigers had little better luck with another pick and a 31-yard runback for field position.
Then came his two heists at Troy. First was on a really deep heave towards the goal line after the Trojan passer evaded a blitz. The ball hung so long Slay had plenty time to muscle in front of the intended target and make a fine catch. Later in the same quarter, a more awkward throw to nobody in particular was rund down for a sliding Slay snag any centerfielder would proudly claim.
There was some irony to both interceptions; each came with Banks as the blitzer forcing one bad throw and one really bad decision. In fact Banks truly had the quarterback caught on the first time, only to see him spin-away at the last instant and unload long. A bad break for Banks, a great one for Slay, hey?
"That's what I said when we were watching the film today, I told him I was kind of happy you missed it! But I wish he would have made the play, too."
Slay makes other plays than just the high-profile picks. He has nine tackles through three starts, six of them solos; a typical total for cornerbacks. After all, he had just 23 stops as a junior playing backup to either Banks or Corey Broomfield, with one interception. It was a good one though, as the Brunswick, GA native took it back 72 yards at Georgia for a touchdown. Still there is more to Mississippi State cornerback life than patrolling the passing lanes.
"I'm tackling good," Slay said. Though, he added, tackling is a sore State point this week after too many defensive gaffes at Troy. Far, far too many. "As a team we didn't do it last week with 20 missed tackles. But we've had a little tackling practice. And we're going to get it right this week."
Fact is, last Saturday's showing served as a rude reminder to a Dog defense that was getting a bit proud of itself after shutting an Auburn down, allowing no offensive touchdowns at all. Getting gashed for three rushing touchdowns and 572 total yards by a non-conference foe would tend to deflate a few egos. Or something. What got under State skins more was the dreaded MA's, missed assignments that were more mental than anything.
"Yeah, it's real frustrating. We're not used to that," Slay said. "We're used to making big plays, stopping the run, getting three-and-outs. The defense wasn't consistent. But we made a lot of big plays though to turn the game around."
"Playing a sloppy game like that, that let us know that we've got a good team and can still pull out a win. But this week we came back in and got better, fixed our corrections. We're going to play South Alabama the same way." Way as practiced, he means.
Speaking of practice, another aspect of Slay's expanded senior role is showing now. He's taking on the responsibility of grooming that next generation of cornerbacks. He and Banks, as well as Broomfield, are graduating with this year's bowl game. Somebody has to step right in next spring…and Slay sees some capable bodies coming on in Jamerson Love, Taveze Calhoun, and true freshman talent Cedric Jiles.
"Those boys are getting good," Slay said. "They're getting real good, learning fast. Yeah, they come to me for a little advice. Because I learned the technique from my friends. I've showed them what it was and now they look up to me. I appreciate that a lot because Banks got me this way. He pushed me during the summer and all the older guys."
Ironic, isn't it, that Banks may have helped his classmate develop into the guy who will end up catching what could have been his interceptions? Now after three games Slay says he's noticing some of the same treatment by opponents. "But they've got to respect Banks, so I've been out there earning my respect," he added. Either way, Slay enjoys how this entire secondary is forcing foes into some tough decisions where to go, who to throw at. Or, not.
"I don' t know what they could do! And we've got Broom back there at safety with Nickoe and they are two big-time playmakers. So it's kind of hard for them to throw the ball like that, definitely deep."
And if they do dare come Slay's way, well, there he is waiting more chances to keep his name on top of the interceptions rankings. Not to mention attract increased attention from pro scouts who've noticed how much more impressive this year's #9 is compared to last year's #47. NFL talk is fun too, Slay said, but he has his priorities clear for fall.
"I'm excited because ain't too many people can play in the SEC and this level of football. So it's a blessing and I appreciate that right now."