By Jeff Latzke/The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — Johnthan Banks always appreciated that Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen offered an opportunity to a scrawny, 150-pound kid from a small town and a hard-to-find school. He certainly is making the most of it.
Banks, a former standout at East Webster High School, was presented the Thorpe Award on Tuesday as college football’s best defensive back. He finished last season with four interceptions, running his career total to 16 to tie the school record at Mississippi State.
“This was one of my biggest goals. I never put the Heisman on there. I only put the Thorpe, so it’s an honor and a blessing to be the recipient,” Banks said.
Banks grew up in tiny Maben, Miss., and said his high school doesn’t even show up when plugged in on a GPS device. Still, Mullen made his way there soon after being hired as the Bulldogs’ head coach in December 2008. No other team offered Banks a scholarship, but he says he would not have gone anywhere else anyway.
Banks was raised largely by his grandparents, and dealt with the death of his father and then his grandfather while growing up. He says he got discovered playing basketball, and that eventually led to him getting a football scholarship.
“He’s a great story of a young man who has every right not to be where he is today but never let anything get in his way,” Mullen said. “To accomplish what he’s done — whether it be playing from a 1A school to playing in the Southeastern Conference, whether it be getting a college degree or becoming the top (defensive back) in the nation, it’s pretty special.”
Mullen, who previously was the offensive coordinator at Florida, wasn’t sure at first where to play Banks but saw potential in him. He eventually settled on putting him on defense, and Banks started out at free safety before eventually growing into a premier cornerback and the fourth straight Thorpe winner from the Southeastern Conference.
Now, he’s training for the next level. The past three Thorpe winners have all been top 10 picks in the NFL draft, and the last eight have gone in the first round.
“It’s been hard and stressful. I’m just ready to get out there and show the world what I can do, not that they don’t know. But I’m ready to go out there and show the scouts what they want to see,” Banks said.
Banks said he hopes in a few months he’ll be able to support his grandmother and pay her back for being there for him all these years.
“A lot of people, I think, in the world, when given an opportunity and look how hard a road it’s going to be, shy away from that. John’s always embraced it. … He just has a tremendous work ethic and a drive to succeed that’s made him special,” Mullen said.