And, earn some honors. Banks is the SEC's Freshman of the Week after his two pick-sixes game against the Gators, and had his team won the contest he would surely have been league defensive player of the week. As it was, the true rookie from Maben, Miss., wrote his name in program history as the first Bulldog ever to turn a pair of picks into touchdowns in the same game. His first one, which took Banks from one end zone to the other, made all the national highlight reviews.
"I've probably watched it 50 times!" Banks said Monday. It's worth repeated review, too, as he fields a Tim Tebow pass deflected by CB Corey Broomfield two steps deep behind the Bulldog goal line, takes off down the right sideline to around mid-field before angling across and into open space the rest of the way. Not alone, though; DE Pernell McPhee had helped open the way earlier and WLB Chris White was practically in-stride at the end.
"Chris would probably be faster than me!" Banks exaggerated with a grin. "I don't know where he and Pernell came from but they were there at the right time, like I was."
And that is the entire key to Banks' abrupt emergence as a Bulldog defensive back to take into offensive account. He moved into the starting lineup for the Houston game as veteran and starter Zach Smith was sidelined by another concussion. A week later at Middle Tennessee, the rookie was right place/right time twice in the fourth quarter with a pair of interceptions on different Blue Raider passers. His last pick was turned into the clinching points by the MSU offense.
But against Florida, Banks did the scoring honors himself. Besides the (official distance) 100-yard return before intermission, he added a 20-yard runback in the fourth as he ran under a Tebow dying-duck toss out of the end zone and returned the ball from whence it had come. Until then, the Gator great had only been pick-sixed once in his whole career, two years ago by Tennessee safety Eric Berry. Now Banks has done twice as well as an All-SEC peer.
"Well, I don't want to put myself in the category of an Eric Berry, because he's a great player," Banks said. "But it feels good to know I've done that against Tim Tebow, one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. But it doesn't happen like that all the time and you have to keep playing."
Then again whose to say Banks can't have games like that all the time? Four interceptions in two weeks would be remarkable enough for a SEC veteran. But for a true rookie who only made the lineup this month? Yet Coach Dan Mullen is not surprised the new pup in his secondary has risen to the occasion(s) so spectacularly.
"He was a younger guy we had ID'd early in camp we thought could really help us out," Mullen said. "He has a knack for the ball. He's just in the right place at the right time. That's just being a good ball player."
And Banks was born to play ball, any sort of ball. He talks of how as a youngster the grandmother who raised him nagged about Johnathan's always tossing a football in-air while walking around Maben "and not paying attention to where I was going! I always did that." At least now Banks has others to do the tossing, whether his position coach in coverage or tip-drills or with the ball machine that fires higher and longer shots Banks has to chase down. But it's all the same thing; see the ball, catch the ball.
In fact Banks has the hands and moves of a receiver; no surprise since he did something of everything at nearby East Webster High. "I played all three sports in high school, I could have gone and played either sport in college. But when I was a kid I always wanted to play football for Mississippi State. When I got an offer from Mississippi State I went ahead and committed because I knew that's what I wanted to do, so I went ahead and did it."
First-year Bulldog boss Mullen is glad Banks did stick to the life-long plan. And with how a freshman has fit so quickly into the starting lineup, especially considering the sort of offensive talent State has faced in his games.
"I'm really pleased how he's performed on an every-down basis," Mullen said. "The tackles he makes, how he plays the position for a guy that hasn't physically matured yet. He has picked it up and is making bigger plays than we ever thought he would." That bit about tackles is telling, too, since putting opponents on the ground has been a problem for State of late. Inserting Banks for the injured Smith isn't the only move coordinator Carl Tobrush has made in October, as senior CB Marcus Washington now plays more snaps as a nickel safety while redshirt Broomfield and juco transfer Maurice Langston start on the corners.
The results are encouraging to say the least as the revamped secondary has 10 of the team's 11 interceptions amongst them. Banks has four of those picks; Broomfield three with a touchdown return against Jackson State as a substitute at the time; and SS Charles Mitchell a 71-yard pick-six against Houston. So these pups are providing big plays in coverage and support; the trick now is consistency. "We're playing with some confidence back there," Mullen said. "There's still a lot of growing and developing to do with Broomfield, Langston, Banks, Mitchell. The only senior in the whole group is Washington so we still have a young group that we hope continues to improve. Not just this year but years to come."
Mullen also noted how Banks needs to mature physically. But the kid has already proven toughness, as last Monday he had both an abscessed tooth and a wisdom tooth removed; then returned to practice the next day. "I wanted to play against Florida bad, because you always want to go against the best. As an athlete I always wanted to play against the best players. The off-day I had my teeth cut out and Tuesday I was back in the swing of things, I was kind of dizzy at first but I fought through it in practice and got through it." So well, in fact, Mullen joked about having some more molars pulled if that's what is needed to inspire Banks to great games. Banks said he'll pass on that plan.
Nor will he let the increased attention turn his young head. After all, he was used to being the big Dog (or Wolverine in case of East Webster HS) in town and always in the sports spotlight. "My coach always told me to stay humble, and Coach Torbush and all the other players talk to me about not letting all this attention get to me.
"But I think I'm old enough and mature enough to know my role on the team. I'm no Anthony Dixon or nobody like that. I feel I was just in the right place at the right time when I made those two interceptions. So I'm going to stay humble and keep playing football and working on it every day." Which he did Sunday, going right back to work as if the previous evening's events hadn't happened. Ironically, "In practice it was a tipped ball and I happened to be right there, so I guess I'm just in the right spot at the right time!" Though this time he didn't have to run the interception back.
And this evening the latest record-setter for Mississippi State and the hottest pup on campus will return to the routine; team meal, study hall, thumbing through the Kentucky scouting report. Oh, and responding to some of those new best on-line friends who joined the Banks cheering section over the weekend. Folk have logged-on from all over, with an interesting exception.
"Nobody from Florida," Banks reports.
ROOKIE REPORT: Mullen has limited access to his first freshman class as far as interviews, with only those who participate regularly available. In the case of Banks, the coach is not worried the sudden glare of a SEC spotlight will be blinding. "We monitor it closely," Mullen said of how freshman attention is treated. "I haven't seen any change in personality except a guy who comes out with a little more confidence in practice. It obviously hasn't fazed him yet. I've been around a lot of high-profile players and as a coach its our responsibility to make sure these young men are allowed to be who they are."
Banks is one of seven true 2009 freshmen to play so far this season, joining WR Chad Bumphis, WR Brandon Heavens, ST Cameron Lawrence, WR Chris Smith, DT Fletcher Cox, DT Josh Boyd. True frosh yet to play are: RB Montrel Conner, WR Dennis Thames, WR Ricco Sanders, QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, DB Nickoe Whitley, RB Williams Shumpert, LB Deonte Skinner, OL Gabriel Jackson, DL Johnathan McKenzie, OL Sam Watts.
ALL QUIET: Monday afternoon Mullen received the anticipated reprimand from the Southeastern Conference office. The Bulldog coach, who commented following the Florida game about the officials' inconsistency in calling off-sides on kickoffs by both teams, spoke more bluntly about both this as well as a ball-strip of a Florida linebacker outside the goal line by WR Brandon McCrae. Though the play was reviewed the on-field call of a touchdown was upheld, though replay of the ESPN network camera views showed the ball indeed was out before the Gator got to the goal.
Mullen was formally reprimanded by the league office for public criticism of officials, which is forbidden by the SEC's code of conduct. The two-paragraph news release included no other punishments or warnings. Mullen did not raise the issue at his press conference today, nor were any questions about the subject allowed.
INJURY REPORT: The Bulldogs came out of their Florida battle with just bumps and bruises. Well, save to the coach himself. "I got rolled-up on the interception return," Mullen admitted, as Banks blazed in front of the Bulldog bench and had players and staff first jumping for joy and then jumping back out of the way. "I might be the only one this week," said the coach, and indeed when he left the briefing a bum ankle was evident as he went up stairs.
DE Charles Burns returned to normal practice Sunday after missing three games with a knee issue. OG Tobias Smith however remains day-to-day as the repaired ankle continues to swell after any real exertion. Smith played briefly against Georgia Tech and Houston but not in the last two contests. Mullen would like to have him available for Kentucky. "If we don't then we're going to put the brakes on it and give him a two-week rest, to hopefully be 100% for the following game." State has its only bye-week of the season prior to hosting Alabama.
Mullen said PK Sean Brauchle, out since pulling a leg muscle in the Georgia Tech game, could have kicked extra points and short field goals this past weekend, but was not ready for long field goals or kickoffs. His status will be evaluated daily in terms of how much range Brauchle shows in practices. He was 6-of-9 on field goals and 12-of-12 on PATs before the injury. PK Derek DePasquale is 6-of-7 on three-pointers in place of Brauchle and 11-of-11 with points-after.