As productive as Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks was last season, he was overshadowed by some of the SEC’s other cornerbacks.
“I felt like I was right up there with those guys, and this year, I know I’m going to be up there,” said Banks, who decided to return for his senior season after weighing his NFL draft options. “But, really, it doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is how I play and how much I help my team get back to being where we think we should be.”
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Banks did his part a year ago and then some. He finished third in the SEC with 14 passes defended and tied for fourth with five interceptions. He also had 71 total tackles, including eight for loss, and led the Bulldogs with three forced fumbles.
He was the only cornerback in the SEC last season with at least 70 tackles and five interceptions.
“Maybe I can do more this year, if that’s what it takes,” said Banks, who was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2011. “But we have a defense coming back that I think can be even better than we were last year. We’ve got just about our whole secondary back, and it hurts to lose Fletcher (Cox). But I’m excited to see what some of these new guys are going to do on the field. From what I’ve seen, I think Quay Evans and Denico Autry are going to live up to the hype.”
Evans, a 6-3, 305-pound tackle, was an ESPNU 150 member and rated as the No. 13 tackle prospect in the country. He enrolled early and will go through spring practice, which was scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon but has been postponed due to weather concerns. The 6-5, 260-pound Autry was rated as one of the top junior college defensive ends in the country.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can play football, and that’s one of the reasons I came back,” Banks said. “Some of the redshirt freshmen like (linebacker) Bernardrick McKinney and (cornerback) Taveze Calhoun are going to make an impact on this defense.”
Banks grew up in Maben, Miss., a tiny town about 20 miles west of Starkville. It’s where he learned to ride horses, one of his many interests. He also aspires to be a state highway patrolman once his football career is over, which is appropriate given the way he locks down on receivers.
“Football’s not going to be there forever,” Banks said.
Mississippi State was the only major school to offer him a scholarship. Ole Miss sent him several letters, but Banks is quick to note that the Rebels never offered him a scholarship.
“Mississippi State was the only one, and that means something,” Banks said. “It still does. I want to make sure I give as much back as possible before I leave this place.”
He jokes that the reason no other schools outside the state of Mississippi offered him a scholarship is because nobody could find him. The population of Maben isn’t even 1,000, and Banks played at Class A East Webster High School.
“If you put Maben on a GPS, you still wouldn’t find it,” Banks said. “I didn’t go to a lot of camps, either, so a lot of people just didn’t know about me.”
He was also rail-thin when he came out of high school and looked more like a basketball player than an SEC football player.
But having spent three years now in Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program, Banks has added weight and strength to his 6-2 frame. His height, not to mention his long arms, comes in handy when he’s shadowing receivers.
Banks also has excellent closing speed and knows what to do with the ball once he gets it in his hands. He’s returned three of his 12 career interceptions for touchdowns. He’s also pretty crafty when it comes to baiting quarterbacks to throw his way.
“I’ve worked hard this offseason to get better at some of the things I wasn’t as good at,” said Banks, who needs five interceptions to pass Walt Harris as Mississippi State’s all-time leader in interceptions. “I still need to be more physical, and I still need to get better at studying tape. I’m going to be a better student of the game.”
Banks also plans on going out the right way.
Even though the Bulldogs won their second straight bowl game a year ago, the first time that’s happened since 1999 and 2000, he was far from satisfied with the 7-6 record. The Bulldogs were 9-4 the year before, sending expectations sky-high.
“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Banks said. “Last year was pretty much a disappointment for us and our fans. We just didn’t have that edge for every game.
“We’ve got that dog back in us now, and I think it’s going to show on the field.”