NCF Nation: Darius Slay

Tuesday brought us the final day of the NFL combine and even more speed, as defensive backs showcased their stuff in Indianapolis.

Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner arrived at the combine as the top-rated defensive back in this year's NFL draft, but had an up-and-down day. He had an impressive official 40-yard dash time of 4.37 seconds, which was the second-fastest 40 time of the day, but he struggled during drills -- dropping a handful of balls. Milliner also had a 36-inch vertical jump and a 122-inch broad jump. He's probably still the top-rated corner in this year's draft with his 40 time and it doesn't sound like his field drills will knock him out of that top spot.

[+] EnlargeDarius Slay
AP Photo/Dave MartinMississippi State CB Darius Slay showed off his leaping ability during NFL combine workouts.
Mississippi State cornerback Darius Slay made some good noise as well after he won the 40 battle, sporting a time of 4.36. That sort of time will certainly help his draft stock, especially after his name was buried a bit heading into the combine. He also had 14 reps of the 225-pound bench press, registered a 35.5-inch vertical and claimed 124 inches in the broad jump.

While Slay helped himself in Indy, teammate Johnthan Banks didn't. He might have won the Thorpe Award, as the nation's best defensive back, but Banks didn't have a good day at the combine. He ran an unflattering 4.61 in the 40 and struggled during field work. He had just 10 bench reps, but sported a 34-inch vertical and a 125-inch broad jump. Banks will have a chance to make up for Tuesday at Mississippi State's pro day.

When it came to showcasing some real strength, Georgia safety Shawn Williams topped all SEC defensive backs with his 25 bench reps. That number ranked third among defensive backs at the combine. He was also one of the fastest safeties out there with his 4.46 in the 40. He also had a 36-inch vertical. Williams really helped himself out with all that strength and speed he showed.

LSU safety Eric Reid also impressed when it came to speed and strength. He tied for the best vertical jump of the day with a height of 40.5 inches and he also tied for the top broad jump (134 inches). Reid also ran a 4.53 40 and did 17 reps on bench.

Florida safety Matt Elam had a big drop in field drills, but he turned some heads with his 4.54 40 time and he was able to get 17 reps on the bench. The 5-foot-10 Elam also registered a 35.5-inch vertical.

The other big story of the day revolved around the performance of former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. A lot of questions surrounded the Honey Badger, who was dismissed from LSU's team before the 2012 season, but he looked like he was in pretty good shape during Tuesday's workouts. While he tied for last with just four reps on bench, Mathieu was very impressive during field drills, showed good speed with his 4.50 in the 40, and registered a 34-inch vertical and a 117-inch broad jump.

Mathieu might have a lot of past off-field issues, but there's no doubt that he's a ballplayer, and Tuesday certainly helped him as far as the draft is concerned.

You can read about all the defensive back performances during the final day of the combine here.

Pregame: TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

December, 30, 2012
12/30/12
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Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) vs. Northwestern (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten)

WHO TO WATCH: Northwestern running back Venric Mark. A year ago, Mark was a nonfactor at receiver. Now he's an All-American because of his explosiveness both as a running back and as a return man. The junior gave Northwestern its first true threat at running back since 2008 and, alongside quarterback Kain Colter, changed the offense from a pass-happy attack to more ground-based. He ranks 23rd nationally in rushing (109.2 yards per game), first in punt-return average (20.1 ypr) and ninth in all-purpose yards (170.7 ypg). He needs 148 yards in the bowl to set Northwestern's single-season record. Despite his size (5-foot-8, 175 pounds), Mark likes running between the tackles and challenging much bigger defenders. But his breakaway speed is his best attribute, and he's responsible for 23 plays of 20 yards or longer and 10 plays of 40 yards or longer.

WHAT TO WATCH: Mississippi State's secondary. There might not be a better cornerback tandem in the country than Johnthan Banks, the Thorpe Award winner, and All-SEC selection Darius Slay. Banks and Slay combined for nine interceptions, 22 passes defended, two fumble recoveries and three tackles for loss. Northwestern doesn't throw the ball nearly as much as it did in previous seasons and might be even more hesitant to challenge Banks and Slay. It'll be interesting to see how both men help against the run, an area in which Mississippi State has had some issues (69th nationally). The Bulldogs are very experienced and dangerous in the secondary with 124 starts and 40 interceptions (eight returned for touchdowns) combined among the starting four.

WHY TO WATCH: Northwestern is a young team that exceeded most expectations with nine wins and easily could have had more (three blown fourth-quarter leads). The program is enjoying an unprecedented period of sustained success, but it continues to be haunted by a bowl losing streak that stretches back to the 1949 Rose. Northwestern hopes to erase the "final negative," as coach Pat Fitzgerald puts it, and notch just the third 10-win season in team history. Mississippi State, meanwhile, does its best work in the postseason and brings the nation's longest active bowl win streak (five games) to Jacksonville, Fla. The Bulldogs struggled down the stretch after a 7-0 start and are still seeking a signature win to cap the season. Quarterback Tyler Russell leads a record-setting Mississippi State pass attack against a Northwestern defense that, while improved, still is prone to breakdowns.

PREDICTION: Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 24. Russell will make some plays in this one, but Northwestern has the better résumé, easily could be in a better bowl and ended the season playing much better than Dan Mullen's Bulldogs (lost four of last five). Mark and Colter will find enough space against an average Mississippi State run defense, and Northwestern will force a key turnover or two in the second half. It'll be close, but Northwestern prevails to end the bowl losing streak.
Saturday serves as both a blessing and a curse for Mississippi State's defense.

On one hand, the Bulldogs' defense has a chance to redeem itself after Alabama rolled right over this unit last week. The problem is that Mississippi State is taking on the SEC's best offense.

Texas A&M has the fifth-best offense nationally, averaging 542.9 yards per game, and is third in scoring (45.5). Thanks to a group of talented skill players, a veteran offensive line and the human highlight reel at quarterback, the Aggies' offense has been one of the most fun ones to watch this season.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/US PresswireMississippi State coach Dan Mullen hopes his talented secondary can help slow Texas A&M's explosive offense.
"They are going to spread you out across the field and create those matchups for their talent," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.

Mike Evans and Ryan Swope have been outstanding at wide receiver this season for the Aggies, combining for 83 catches for 1,225 yards and seven touchdowns. Ben Malena has been a pleasant surprise at running back (525 yards and five touchdowns).

But we know what really makes this A&M offense tick: Johnny Manziel.

The redshirt freshman has received Heisman love, and he has killed teams with his arm and his legs. He's averaging 277 yards passing and 99 rushing each game. He also has combined to score 29 touchdowns in his first season on the field.

"If you give him all day to stand back there and throw, he'll throw and beat you with his arm. If you give him open spaces, he's going to take off and beat you with his legs," Mullen said. "You have to do everything to contain him."

And good defenses have done so in the second half of games. Florida and LSU clamped down on Johnny Football in their wins against the Aggies, and the Bulldogs are looking to take some of what the Gators and Tigers did and expand on it Saturday.

Mullen knows he has to put pressure on Manziel, but he can't be too aggressive because running lanes could open up. And you obviously can't give him time to stand in the pocket.

Only two defenses have calmed Manziel's storm, and the Bulldogs certainly have the talent to do it, as well, especially with such a talented secondary.

This is the same unit that gave up some big plays against Alabama, but it's also the same unit that has arguably the nation's top cornerback duo in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, who have combined for 10 of Mississippi State's 12 interceptions.

Communication issues hurt this group against Alabama, but don't expect these players to have the same sort of issues Saturday. And with the way Manziel likes to improvise, things could get tricky for him if he doesn't settle down under duress.

"Your concern is that this is a really, really good secondary," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Not only is it a good secondary, it's an experienced secondary."

To take some of the pressure off that secondary, all eyes will be on Mississippi State's defensive line. What was expected to be a strong part of this defense hasn't really lived up to expectations.

The line has combined for eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss through eight games. The core was supposed to be junior college transfer Denico Autry and veteran Josh Boyd. They've combined for just three sacks and seven tackles for loss.

"I want pressure every play," Mullen said. "I guess if every time a team tries to throw the ball and it ends in a sack, that's what I want."

In a perfect world, Mullen would get that. For now, he'll have to hope for flat-out improvement up front. And he'll need it if this defense is going to rebound Saturday.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 7

October, 11, 2012
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We have a few exciting matchups in the SEC this weekend, so let's check out what to watch in Week 7:

1. Mettenberger's poise: LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger just hasn't looked comfortable in his two SEC starts. Granted, they were on the road, but we all expected a lot more from him. But in two SEC starts, Mettenberger has averaged 163.5 passing yards and has completed 50 percent of his passes with no touchdowns and an interception. It appears his confidence has been shot, and he has to get it back or this offense will be in trouble against such a talented South Carolina defense. Expect that Gamecocks front to put a ton of pressure on Mettenberger, which is something he's struggled against all year. If LSU can't balance its offense with the run and pass, it won't beat South Carolina.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
John David Mercer/US PresswireCan quarterback Bo Wallace get the Rebels a win against conference rival Auburn this week?
2. Chaney's patience: Tennessee is in must-win mode against Mississippi State, but it has the tall task of putting its offense up against the Bulldogs' vaunted secondary. If Tennessee is going to best Mississippi State's defense, it has to be able to run the ball consistently. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said this week that balance is the key and he has to be more patient with his running game. Rajion Neal has been very impressive during the Vols' last two games, but he'll have to be on top of his game again in order to take some of the pressure off of quarterback Tyler Bray. Chaney wants to run the ball more, but he has a tendency to get too pass-heavy at times when things get rough. His patience in the running game will be important.

3. Ending an embarrassing streak: Could this be the weekend Ole Miss finally gets over the SEC hump? The Rebels haven't won an SEC game in 16 tries and are fresh off a heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M. But the Rebels host an Auburn team that has struggled in every phase of the game this year. If Ole Miss is going to turn things around in SEC play, this is the weekend to do it. Auburn is giving up 409.8 yards of offense a game and is last in the SEC in total offense, generating a little more than 300 yards a game. The Rebels have one of the league's best offenses and shouldn't have an issue scoring.

4. Slowing down Marcus Lattimore: South Carolina's running back appears to be getting stronger and healthier each week. He has rushed for 314 yards and five touchdowns in three SEC games and has to be salivating at the thought of facing an LSU defense that surrendered 146 rushing yards and two touchdowns to Florida's Mike Gillislee last week. Gillislee absolutely wore down the Tigers' front, and that's something Lattimore knows a thing or two about. LSU's offense kept its defense on the field and tired in the Swamp, and South Carolina's defense is capable of doing the same thing to the Tigers, so Lattimore could get plenty of chances to exhaust this unit with his pounding style.

5. South Carolina taking another step: The Gamecocks are all the rage in college football. Steve Spurrier has this team ranked in the top five, and a win Saturday might propel South Carolina into the No. 2 spot. But with all the attention on the Gamecocks, can they keep their composure? Atlanta has been the goal all along, but even this team probably didn't expect to receive the attention it has this early in the year. LSU might be wounded, but this is South Carolina's first true road test. This team will be ready for South Carolina, and the Tigers haven't lost back-to-back games since 2008. If South Carolina is going to take the next step in its SEC journey this year, it has to beat LSU in hostile Tiger Stadium.

6. Scoreboard outage in Shreveport: We know that Texas A&M can score points. The Aggies have averaged 51.5 points in four games since their opening loss to Florida. Johnny Manziel and his explosive crew have crippled defenses this year, but they might send Louisiana Tech's defense running. The Bulldogs rank 123rd nationally in total defense, giving up 531 yards a game. They are also giving up 35.8 points per game. Texas A&M has the ability to really light the scoreboard up against this team, but Louisiana Tech has a very talented offense as well. The Bulldogs actually average more yards than the Aggies and are scoring 53.2 points per game. We could have a Big 12 game on our hands.

7. Florida's focus: The Gators are riding high off that emotional win over LSU last week. Coach Will Muschamp was celebrating like a little kid, violently pumping his fists and crowd surfing in the locker room. This was a huge win for him and his team, but now it's time to get back to playing football. But this group of Gators isn't used to success. Florida is ranked No. 4 nationally and is starting to get BCS love, but all that would come to a screeching halt with a loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday. The Commodores are feeling good after that road win against Missouri and are fighting for a bowl berth. Florida is on the road, and with South Carolina up next, the Gators can't get caught looking ahead this weekend.

8. Mississippi State's secondary vs Tennessee's passing game: You have the SEC's top passing offense taking on one of the top secondary units around with arguably the best cornerback duo in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay. Bray has an impressive set of receiving toys to play with, but he'll have his hands full against Banks and Slay, who have combined for seven interceptions and haven't allowed any touchdowns. As a whole, Mississippi State has allowed just three passing touchdowns, while Bray has tossed 14 touchdowns. He has six interceptions on the year, and has had an issue with pressing. He can't afford to force things against this secondary because it will make him pay.

9. Alabama's offensive attack: There aren't a lot of glaring issues with No. 1 Alabama, but it will be interesting to see what the offense looks like this weekend against Missouri. Injuries have Alabama down to three scholarship running backs, while the Tide is looking for another deep threat with DeAndrew White going down with a season-ending knee injury. Players have said that execution issues have hurt the offense at times, and now that this team is down some bodies, the little things have to get cleaned up. The good news for Alabama is that Nick Saban got an extra week to prep and get this offense ready with the bye.

10. An Arkansas revival: Don't look now, but Arkansas is slowly crawling out of the canyon it created with a terrible September. Bowl hopes were dashed, but last week's win over Auburn has given this team new life. You still don't know what you're going to get from coach John L. Smith, but his players showed a lot of pride last week. The Razorbacks are dealing with a ton of injuries, but face a Kentucky team riddled with injuries as well. A win for the Razorbacks would really put them right back in the bowl hunt.
Those who have the unfortunate task of facing Mississippi State's secondary must deal with the thought of going into lockdown mode.

Wide receivers have to face facts as they enter "Precinct 913” run by cornerbacks Darius Slay (9) and Johnthan Banks (13).

The clever title involving both players’ uniform numbers supposedly came from the mind of a fan, but the two have grown to love and live it, as they own the title of the SEC’s best corner duo.

"Me and Slay work real good together," Banks said.

[+] EnlargeDarius Slay
Spruce Derden/US PresswireDarius Slay is helping Mississippi State make its case for having the best secondary in the country.
Their seven combined interceptions (Slay 4, Banks 3) are more interceptions than 108 Football Bowl Subdivision teams have, they haven’t allowed a touchdown against them, Slay is one of four players nationally averaging 1.0 interceptions per game and Banks is allowing just 4.2 yards per pass thrown his way in man coverage.

Banks was thrown at 11 times through the first three games, but watched offenses pay the price, as Slay ended up being the only player in the nation to intercept a pass in each of the first three weeks of the season.

South Alabama avoided Slay, throwing 10 passes at Banks, but he left the game with yet another interception.

Things only get better when you add safeties Corey Broomfield, who moved from corner, and Nickoe Whitley. The foursome has combined to defend 12 passes and intercept eight. It's also helped Mississippi State's defense allow just 53 points in four games, the lowest allowed through the first four games since 1999 (28).

The Bulldogs are giving up 213.5 passing yards per game, but have allowed just two passing touchdowns while registering nine interceptions.

Yet, Banks feels the jury is still out on this unit.

"I don't think anybody else thinks we have a really good secondary, but we know we have a good secondary," Banks said. "It kind of makes us mad that I get singled out, out of the four. That motivates us. We know that people are going to come watch me and praise me, but that makes them go even harder to show what I can do, they can do, and maybe do it better."

Added Broomfield: "You can say what you want to say. You can put any list together that you want to, but we're going to put it on tape that we're the best secondary in the nation."

Through three seasons of work, these players have 32 career interceptions among them, but nearly half go to Banks, who ranks first among active FBS players with 15 career interceptions. He's also tied for third nationally with Broomfield with three interceptions returned for touchdowns. He's an excellent cover man who moonlights as a ball hawk.

But he’s nothing without his posse.

"I know I get all the praise, but I'd say we're all dangerous," Banks said. "All those guys just get it done -- 'Broom,' Slay, Nickoe -- all of them do the same things I do. It's just ridiculous how good these three guys that play with me are."

Banks said the crew really started to jell when Slay moved into the starting lineup. It gave the Bulldogs a chance to be in nickel on every down with Broomfield still on the field. Having three corners on the field at all times makes for more versatile packages for the secondary and provides more opportunities for man coverage, which they all love.

It’s also helped make them more competitive in practice. Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said his players have to keep an edge in the secondary, and they do that by constantly challenging each other in practice.

It’s almost another game to see who can out-do the other each day in order to eliminate complacency.

“In the big picture, if these guys can really prepare as well as I think they can, week in and week out, they'll only get better,” Wilson said.

Saturday, this secondary should feast off Kentucky's pass game, which will be without starting quarterback Maxwell Smith. The thought of possibly playing against two true freshmen quarterbacks has to make State's foursome salivate uncontrollably.

But in two weeks, Tennessee comes to town. Tyler Bray and his band of receiving threats will invade Starkville on a mission to rule the skies. However, they should tread lightly when around the precinct.

Handcuffing is its specialty.

“We're ready,” Slay said. “We're built for good competition and we look forward to playing good receivers.”
It was a sloppy one in Athens, Ga., but it's finally over.

Georgia overcame three Aaron Murray interceptions and just 315 yards of total offense to beat Mississippi State 24-10. It wasn't pretty by any means, but Georgia has a three-game winning streak and is now 2-1 in the SEC, and that's all that matters for this Bulldogs team right now.

Murray has seen much better days in his career, as he passed for 160 yards and two touchdowns to go with his three picks. He found tight end Orson Charles and freshman standout Malcolm Mitchell for his two touchdowns.

Isaiah Crowell and Mitchell continue to really be the bright young stars of this Georgia offense. Crowell carried the ball 22 times for 104 yards, while Mitchell caught five passes for a game-high 60 yards. You have to give Mississippi State props for its run defense in the second half. Crowell had 90 yards at halftime, but only 14 in the second half.

As for Mississippi State's offense, well, this pack of Bulldogs didn't score an offensive touchdown. The Bulldogs talked about fixing the little things and cleaning up the mistakes, but Mississippi State failed to do much of that as the Bulldogs managed just 213 total yards and just 56 rushing yards.

When you have Vick Ballard and Chris Relf in your backfield that is just unacceptable. Ballard carried the ball just eight times for 23 yards, while Relf had 31 yards rushing. Relf also passed for 157 yards, but had two interceptions.

Mississippi State's lone touchdown came on a 72-yard interception return by Darius Slay in the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach.

For Georgia, the momentum continues for a team left for dead after the first two weeks. For Mississippi State, an 0-3 start will create a major mental roadblock for a team that some had pegged as a dark horse in the West. The offensive problems are mounting for Mississippi State and we still haven't seen much of Chad Bumphis on offense. It's like he has disappeared. He is a player that has to be more involved in the offense, but he has to make more of an effort to be. He had just two catches for 15 yards and one carry for no yards against Georgia. When you are your team's best offensive athlete you have to get more than three touches. You have to find a way.

Georgia still has some things to clean up on both sides of the ball, but this winning streak is only a good thing for a team looking to make it back to Atlanta for the SEC title game.

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