By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – It was late September of last year, and Melvin Smith approached Darius Slay after a practice. “You could be great,” the coach told him.
Slay, now a senior cornerback for Mississippi State, is flirting with “great” status.
Greatness can be subjective, but there’s an awfully good case to be made for the former Itawamba Community College standout.
Heading into Saturday’s game with Kentucky, Slay has a team-leading four interceptions, which is tied for second nationally and is one ahead of teammate Johnthan Banks, who’s the more prominent player.
“How good is Slay? We’ll know at the end of the year,” said Smith, who coaches MSU’s cornerbacks. “Based on what he’s had to do this year, he’s done pretty good.”
Playing opposite Banks certainly gives Slay opportunities to make plays, but his game stands pretty well on its own. Slay originally signed with State out of high school but had to go the junior college route instead, and when it came time to sign again, he knew it would be tough to crack the cornerback rotation.
Both Banks and Corey Broomfield were well-established as starters.
“Both of them coming in at the same age as me and in the same class, it was hard saying, ‘Hey, I’m going in behind these boys and trying to beat them,’ ” Slay said. “So I had second thoughts, but I trusted my instincts, came here and just competed.”
The week after Smith’s encouragement, against Georgia, Slay returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown, forced a fumble and made a tackle-for-loss. It was his third career start.
After the game, Smith told Slay, “You’re an SEC corner.” And then Smith was faced with a good problem: How to get all three on the field.
The solution was to move Broomfield to safety, and that’s where he’s been all season. Smith said Slay has a more typical build for a safety, and in fact wasn’t sure how well he’d handle cornerback, but the decision to move Broomfield ultimately came down to experience.
“It was a lot easier for Corey to make that adjustment,” safeties coach Tony Hughes said.
A natural fit
While Slay was recruited by MSU as a corner, Smith looked at his size (6-foot-1, 190 pounds), and his built-in skepticism made him doubt whether Slay could get the job done.
“I’m one of these guys that always believes a guy can’t play corner,” Smith said. “So I always feel like a guy’s a DB first, then he becomes a corner.
“I always thought he was a defensive back when he was at (ICC), and quite honestly, he showed me he was a corner – an SEC corner – about midway through the season last year.”
Slay had hoped to arrive at MSU in the spring of 2011 but didn’t make it until the summer. So it took him a little while to settle in, but his natural ability helped make up for the lost time.
Hughes cited speed, physical toughness and mental toughness as some of Slay’s finer qualities. The latter, defined by what Hughes called a “short memory,” might be the most important.
“If he does mess up, he’s got that fire in him to come back the next time,” Hughes said. “OK, you got me once, you’re not going to get me twice.”
Banks and Slay form perhaps the country’s toughest cornerback duo. Teams tend to throw away from Banks, but last time out, South Alabama went at him several times. He made the Jaguars pay with an interception.
Perhaps that’s a sign that Slay is earning respect from offensive coaches. His growing confidence is evident in his play and in the greater role he’s taken on as a senior.
But he doesn’t talk like a player chasing personal greatness, choosing instead to talk about others.
“I ain’t looking for too much attention, because the only thing I’m out there doing is, I want to win,” Slay said. “So that’s what my goal is, to go out there, beat the person in front of me, because I know Banks will do his job, I know (Josh) Boyd will do his job, Nickoe (Whitley), all of them.
“I know they’re going to be 100 percent going in.”