By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Johnthan Banks insists this week is just like all the rest.
It’s not, of course.
Because on Saturday, Banks will lead No. 19 Mississippi State’s top-shelf secondary against a Tennessee receiving corps that’s among the best in the country.
As MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson put it, “It’s going to be pro football players on pro football players.”
This time next year, Banks will likely have “first-round draft pick” on his rampésumampé. Saturday provides the opportunity for him to solidify his bona fides against the likes of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, who lead the SEC’s most prolific passing attack.
“I’m just being real: I go out to play football,” Banks said. “It doesn’t matter who we play. I feel the same if we’re playing East Webster High School.”
Banks, who graduated from East Webster, acknowledged the talent level of those receivers as well as the man throwing them the ball, quarterback Tyler Bray. The 6-foot-6 junior has passed for 1,582 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions this season. He’s got a strong arm but can work other parts of the field, too.
“He throws his guys open, he’s got a big arm, and his guys fight hard for the ball and go get it,” Banks said.
If Banks and fellow cornerback Darius Slay – who have combined for seven interceptions – can slow down the Tennessee receivers, then the Bulldogs should have little trouble improving to 6-0 on the season. It obviously won’t be easy.
Hunter stands 6-4, while Patterson is 6-3, and both are juniors (Patterson is a junior college transfer). MSU cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith said it’s a chance for his players to prove how good they are.
“You order receivers out of a magazine, that’s what you get,” Smith said. “They’re tall and athletic and they really get after the ball, they run good routes.”
Banks feels supremely confident in the secondary’s ability to cover the Volunteers. He’s had some of his best games in SEC play, going back to his freshman year when he returned two interceptions for touchdowns against Florida’s Tim Tebow.
On the other side of the field is Slay, who’s made a name for himself this season with four interceptions. Backing them up are experienced safeties Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley.
Slay is “good enough to hold anybody in the country. I think I’m good enough to guard anybody in the country,” Banks said. “The game plan will be the same, to go out and play physical, play Mississippi State defense, create turnovers and get them off the field on third down.”
Banks is insistent on downplaying this matchup because he doesn’t want the spotlight on himself. As much as he relishes opposing teams challenging him, he’d just as soon be ignored by everyone else.
“I’m not a selfish player. I don’t want all the attention on me,” he said. “I haven’t done this by myself. … Most people try to make it about me when it’s not, it’s more about my team.”
A reporter pointed out that former MSU cornerback Fred Smoot, a notorious smack-talker, would have circled this kind of game on his calendar.
“That ain’t me, that’s Fred,” Banks said. “I’m a different guy.”