Slay Is Cornering The MSU Market

The break was welcome. Still the down-time did cost Darius Slay his NCAA interceptions lead. So yes, the Bulldog cornerback said today, getting gloves on more passes is his objective. "I'm trying to, I work hard for them every week."

Now to get technical, Slay still sees a ‘1' by his name in this week's national defensive rankings. They're based on averages and with four picks in as many games Slay has another ‘1' or rather ‘1.00' on the other side of his name. The challenge comes from Fresno State's Phillip Thomas, who is five-for-five and thus gets top billing. Meanwhile Slay is even with defenders from Western Kentucky and UCLA at four interceptions.

No problem, though. A new week brings fresh opportunity for Slay to go hunting pickable passes. And speaking of fresh, the whole Mississippi State roster ought to be following their only open date of 2012. Coach Dan Mullen was sufficiently satisfied with the 4-0, 1-0 SEC start, he not only let the Bulldogs have a standard weekend. Players were excused from the normal Friday morning weight workout, and weren't required back on campus until Monday morning classes.

"It helps to get our legs back under us. And it's a short period today so we're ready to go out there and try to get ready for Kentucky."

Hopefully everyone's head is also clear for resumption of SEC season, particularly the defensive Bulldogs. It's because the Wildcats (1-4, 0-2 SEC) won't be simple scouting due to quarterback questions. Not that this is exactly a benefit for the home team; Kentucky would love some certainty there even more than the opposing defense. But with four-game starter Maxwell Smith now out, and senior Morgan Newton just not effective, the Wildcats are looking at two true freshmen.

One, Jalen Whitlow, has at least been exposed to SEC intensity, and worked all but the first series against South Carolina after Smith's injury. He was 12-of-23 passing for 114 yards with two interceptions. Now Kentucky is apparently weighing the benefits of pulling classmate Patrick Towles' redshirt midway of the year. At least the Bulldogs can watch Whitlow in rookie action, but scouting Towles might mean pulling up old recruiting-site video.

"It's going to be hard because we don't have too much film on them," Slay said. "But we're going to find a way to come up with some film." And along with it a workable defensive scheme. Where freshmen will be working for Kentucky, "We've got older guys. I know Coach Wilson is going to come up with a package to confuse the quarterbacks because they're young."

Even un-confused quarterbacks have struggled to make successful connections against this Mississippi State secondary. The current starting foursome has between them 37 interceptions and quite a few more breakups. CB Johnthan Banks headlines the group of course, his 15 career picks just one shy of tying the program record. CB-turned-S Corey Broomfield hasn't gotten an interception since 2010 but still has nine for the career. And S Nickoe Whitley has more than proven recovered from last November's injury with a timely pick last week against South Alabama, the eighth of his career.

But here it is Slay leading the SEC and for 2012 at least setting the pace for a pretty proud pack of Bulldog defensive backs. Banks, by the way, is in a seven-man tie for sixth in the NCAA standings this week. Maybe in September, when Slay was a first-time starter after Broomfield moved over to strong safety, teams were tempted to throw his way and not towards all-star Banks.

Now? "It can be hard," Slay said of picking which direction to toss. "We've got four of the best secondary players in the nation. And with Nickoe and Broomfield back there it's kind of hard." Certainly Slay isn't someone to casually challenge any more; not only can he intercept but the senior can make it hurt worse with a big return. He has a 72-yard touchdown last year at Georgia, and a 52-yarder this season against Jackson State.

In fact, at his current pace Slay's name should start popping up for post-season honors of his own. "I feel I've earned a lot," he said. "But I still have to prove myself because we have a lot of SEC games coming up, these are big games. So we have to prove our point."

Slay has found his place as the ‘field' cornerback, Broomfield's old job. Though he says he would prefer working the boundary side if given the chance.

"I like boundary the most because it's smaller over there. But it's just blessing to be on the field with those boys." An interesting group of guys at that both on and off the field. Maybe more so the latter, such as when Georgia native Slay and Floridian Broomfield debate the relative merits of their respective states against Mississippians Banks and Whitley. Who, of course, are the country & city pairing themselves.

"Yeah, we always compete!" Slay said. "Broom always thinks his team has more speed; I say we have the power house; and Banks says they're more athletic than us! We'll all find out one day."

The Dogs also find out much sooner if they can get after, and get to, whoever is taking Kentucky's snaps. True, freshmen offer a wild-card sort of situation for scheming. And defenses do dislike unpredictability in an opponent. But in a sense Mississippi State has already dealt with this matchup. Auburn's sophomore quarterback was a first-year starter in an entirely different system…and it showed once the Bulldogs got going.

"That's the same thing we did with Kiehl Frazier," said Slay. "Pressure him. He panicked and we made big plays. That's what our goal is at Kentucky."

The team goal, he means. And should Slay just happen to find his way to a few passes and regain top Dog status in the NCAA stats, so much the better.

EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS: Slay has already proven better than his position coach anticipated. Coach Melvin Smith now admits, the Georgia prep product by way of Itawamba C.C. looked like something else than a cornerback.

"I was telling him yesterday, when I first saw him and when we approved him, I really thought he might be a safety," Smith said. "Because he had a safety's body. I didn't know he would be as good at cornerback, because usually that body type ends up at safety. But you don't really know until you get to coach one and see what they can do."

What Slay could do was, well, anything a Bulldog defensive back must regardless of official position. And as the stats show, he really is a SEC cornerback. Just moving a Broomfield over was proof of faith for that matter.

"Based on what he's had to do this year he's done pretty good," Smith said. "He still has a chance to get better in a lot of areas, but he has a skill-set I like. He has really good feet, he has good size, and he loves to play corner." Just as the coaching staff loves presenting opponents the cruel choice: throw at Banks, or throw at Slay. It's no surprise which way September squads went, Smith said.

"Banks has a lot of tape showing if you throw at him he's going to make a play. Darius is building a body of work that is similar to that. So they're a good group, together they are a pretty good pair."

As Dog fans know, the trio of Banks-Broomfield-Slay are all seniors. Now that it is SEC season again, Smith is sure to stick with his veterans in most every situation. Yet last month offered reason for confidence that there will not be a serious fall-off in 2013. Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love aren't well-known names outside campus just yet…

…but based on their tests so far in backup duty a lot of folk will hear of them soon enough. "We've had a chance to play them," Smith said. "And I think that's how you really tell if they can play corner. They're moving forward. I really love Calhoun and Love, I just want their progress to move forward. But you only get better playing. But we've been able to play them in all four games and I like that."

Unfortunately he won't be able to put Cedric Jiles on the field for a while, due to a broken hand. But that may be the only way to keep this kid off the field. A true freshman, "He had really earned his stripes," Smith said. "I like Jiles a lot, he's shown me he can play corner in a game. He's competitive and he wants to be good, and he has talent. There are not a lot of negatives with him."

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