"I can't really say it's easier!" a tired Banks manages to grin. "But last year was waaaay tougher. I wanted to pack up and go home. But this summer I know what I've got to do and I've just got to work hard and get to where I want to be."
Then again Banks is already in a pretty promising place in terms of his 2010 playing prospects. After bursting on the SEC scene as a true freshman, he figures prominently in Bulldog gameplans…once his coaches figure out exactly where. Nobody seems to be in a big hurry though.
"I don't know if I'm going to be playing safety or corner still," says Banks. "I mean I've been working with the corners the whole summer, but I'm just ready for the challenge whatever it is. I know I'm going to be playing, I've got to be on the field!"
Banks can have such summer confidence because his freshman feats guarantee he will indeed be on the field somewhere. He played in all twelve rookie year games, but it was in the seven starts where the Maben native blossomed. Taking over at free safety for an injured Zach Smith, the new kid played like a veteran and went on to score 33 tackles—second among all defensive backs—with four interceptions and three more deflections.
All of which would seem to have him locked-in as the returning centerfielder. Wellll… "I'm planning on playing cornerback. But I'll play anywhere they put me just like that."
The move was made the last week of Banks' first State spring, when after eleven days working at free safety the soph-to-be lined up at the farthest-left defensive position. This produced raised eyebrows on the adjacent sideline and briefly had folk wondering if new coordinator Manny Diaz had come up with some special defensive alignment. But no, it was a genuine test of Banks as a cover-corner.
And, for the best of all possible reasons: because State was looking for ways to get as many of the good, young defensive backs on the field at the same time. With redshirt Nickoe Whitley shooting up the safety depth chart and deserving a look on the first team partnered with strong safety Charles Mitchell, the coaches opted to let Banks take turns at cornerback.
He handled it quite well, of course, not even blinking at suggestion of a switch this early in his career.
"I mean, it's a just a team thing. Basically it's a different assignment for me at corner, but it's going to be fun and challenging." And, perhaps, even a little less physically stressful. "When I played safety I had to hit tight ends all the time," Banks quips. "Now I can get out there at cornerback and kind-of bully the receivers a little bit! A little more one-on-one."
Cornerback isn't quite as mentally demanding, either, since Banks says a Mississippi State safety has so much to know and do on any play. By the same token this job, one may say, puts more demands on the emotional strengths of a young player. Cornerback is a lot more do-or-die, hero-or-zero affair. "You've got a lot of assignments but for one you know you have to lock-down receivers."
Banks is preparing to work as the ‘boundary' corner in Diaz' system, though like all Bulldog DBs he is supposed to be able to operate either side of the field. Much like State safeties are not strictly ‘free' or ‘strong' but must be ready to line up as either. Then there is additional duties given to nickel and even dime safeties, as in spring drills a bewildering variety of schemes were practiced. Whatever the set, Banks is confident.
"Wherever Coach needs me that's where I'll be at."
By the way, that coach is now Melvin Smith, and Banks shakes his head at the transition after a season under the tutelage of Tony Hughes. Fortunately it was Smith who recruited Banks, so the soph was already accustomed to this longtime corner-coach's non-stop and rambling chatter. He also knows that had he indeed tried to run home to nearby Maben in a freshman fright last summer, Smith would have made the half-hour drive over and hauled him right back.
"I love him like a daddy," Banks says. "Last summer he about ran me off, too, he got afer my butt! This summer it will probably the same way but I'm going to be ready for the challenge."
Fact is Banks is ready for any challenge now. For one thing he's maturing of body, up to 183 pounds this month after playing at 175 as a raw rookie. "I feel like I'm doing big things. I'm betting bigger, I'm stronger, I feel like I'm getting faster." Just as importantly, he better-developed in his gridiron mind. While he was able to do anything, any time at East Webster High, college ball has taught him the need to know exactly what he should do, when to do it, and now why as well.
"Yeah, I feel like I'm old. Because I've learned how to play football a little bit. And I'm around all these guys that teach me a lot. All of them have been a big help. Coach Smith, Coach Hughes, Corey Broomfield, Charles Mitchell, all of them have been a big help." Because of that, Banks now tries to lend his own veteran hand to the latest crop of frosh on campus. Yeah, it's tempting to take advantage, but…
"I don't laugh at them, I try to encourage them, let them know how I was last summer. And I think these freshmen are attacking it." Banks has even picked out, well, the next John Banks on the roster. "I just look at Jay Hughes and can tell he's about like I was. He's kind of nervous, a little scared, but he's coming along. These freshmen are going to help us win somehow and we just have to encourage them and keep them going hard."
Hard enough not to run afoul of Matt Balis, too. Even after a year Banks still seeks that fine-line: being able to get off the workout field with some juice left, but not so much that the strength coach suspects he didn't do a good enough job. "If you've got energy to run off the field hard, that means you haven't really put in the work!" Banks laughs..sort-of. Because any observation of these Dogs just barely making the Center door on their remaining steam affirms Banks' words. "And I'm pretty sure all of these guys have put in the work."
And come August the real on-field work begins, with Banks resuming drills at his end-of-spring cornerback position. Or, will he? "In two-a-days I might be playing receiver, who knows?!"