"Well, we really ain't dominating!" Banks tried to qualify, the still-there grin belying these words. "But we're coming out working hard, we're learning the defense. Coach Diaz has been great with us and our position coaches, and everything is just going good."
Normally such an evaluation would not surprise any longtime Mississippi State fan. Defense typically is expected to set the early pace, whether spring or fall. Even more so when a unit returns all but two every-game '09 starters. Also, given that the Bulldog offense is both missing Anthony Dixon and watching a tight quarterback competition, there ought to be a little bit of advantage on the stopping side of the ball.
But then this isn't a completely normal camp because the Dog defense is under new direction, by coordinator/linebacker boss Manny Diaz; and has a new line coach in Chris Wilson. Fortunately the veterans have found a fast and fun fit with their new boss. This includes sophomore-to-be Banks, one of the most impressive young safeties to pull on a Bulldog uniform in years.
The first time Banks heard Diaz say he wanted a defense that played on the attack, he new the right coach had been hired.
"Man, he just wants a team that wants to get it," Banks said. "Coach Diaz is the type of the guy like Coach Mullen is. He gets up into it with us. When he brings his fire to the table, that's going to make us bring our fire. And he's bringing his fire!"
In fact Diaz has turned up the heat from day-one of camp, whether his guys were wearing pads or not. Bulldog quarterbacks have learned that the red jerseys are not quite as protective as in the past with defenders who come up to contain or rush the pocket pulling up at the last instant…usually. QB Chris Relf got to find out why his peers in other SEC programs fear Pernell McPhee so after the defensive end gave his #1 quarterback a stout shove in the back that planted Relf facemask-first in one of Saturday's contact segements.
Running backs and ends, both split and tight, have their own examples. If anyone expects Banks to apologize…well, just check that grin again. "The offense knows we're going to go hard on defense and everything. So that's going to make them go harder, too. I enjoy that!"
Banks is very much enjoying his first Mississippi State spring. He's in an odd sort of situation because as a true fall freshman Banks was playing a relief role at safety in the opening game; and by October was starting free safety. When the season ended with an Egg Bowl victory, Banks had compiled 33 tackles with four interceptions and 145 yards' worth of returns including his full-field runback for touchdown against Florida.
Banks finds spring football something of a welcome changes because now, he can really learn the finer points of his position in practice situations. Though, the on-the-job training he got in 2009 was pretty effective, too. "I've got more confidence in the field. Last year I was just kind of stuck in there, I felt like a baby on the field. Now I kind of feel like a man on the field because I know my stuff."
Unlike the linemen and ‘backers in front of him, Banks also has the luxury of the same position coach with Tony Hughes. The safeties skipper has almost an intact roster to work with, missing only cornerback/nickel safety Marcus Washington. Even FS Zach Smith, whose spot Banks assumed when his elder had to sit with one-too-many concussions, is back this spring and participating as if nothing had interrupted his career.
It makes for a situation where the collective defensive backfield, safeties and corners alike, see all the potential Diaz wants to maximize.
"The secondary, we're all coming together," said Banks. "We all know our roles, we're all still in the learning process and just getting better. We're older back there, we're smarter. We've got two juniors, a senior, sophomores, we don't have any freshmen back there no more." Or not yet, as some pretty touted new kids will be coming in August. Plus there are redshirts like Nickoe Whitley and Dennis Thames who are ready to wear the varsity shirts and get some live snaps now. Yet Banks' point holds. "So we're getting older and smarter."
Which is not necessarily encouraging news for an offensive squad that wanted to spend this spring getting better, older, and smarter too. Then again, they'll know every yard earned in camp was usually won the hard way and it should pay off when both units unite in common cause this fall. And despite any hard hits, Banks reports no hard feelings.
"The offense is working with us pretty good. The receivers are running hard routes, the quarterbacks have been throwing the ball. They've been giving us a lot of work and we have to go at it."