- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Johnthan Banks is tired of living in the shadows created by his fellow cornerbacking comrades.
With all due respect to Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne and Dre Kirkpatrick, Banks believes he was the best the SEC had to offer at corner in 2011. And in 2012, Mississippi State’s senior looks to make a real name for himself before leaving for the big leagues.
“I think I’m at the top right now,” Banks said. “I can say I’m at the top because I worked my way to the top. I think I deserve to be at the top with the guys who are at the top.
“It’s a strong list (of SEC corners), but I have a lot of skill. I’m not going to sit here and brag on myself, but I can blitz off the corner, I can sit back and cover. A lot of guys can’t do that.”
Banks oozes confidence for a reason.
When compared to other SEC defensive backs last season, Banks was the only player to rank in the top three in tackles (third), tackles for loss (third), sacks (first), interceptions (third), passes defended (second), fumbles forced (third), quarterback hurries (tied for first), punt return touchdowns (tied for second), and interceptions returned for touchdowns (tied for first).
Banks had 71 tackles, eight for loss, three sacks, five interceptions and defended 14 passes. He enters the fall tied for fourth nationally among active leaders in career interceptions (12), and tied for first with three interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Stats aren’t the whole story, says coach Dan Mullen. His mere presence on the field can change offensive plans. He seems to stick to receivers with his coverage skills, and if he can get his paws around the ball, look out.
“As a defensive back, you’re looking at a guy who is 6-foot-2 and long and has tremendous ball skills,” Mullen said. “He can do things other guys can’t. He has some range, and when the ball’s in the air he has a natural ability to go make plays on the ball and create interceptions, create big plays, not just defend the ball in play, but turn into an offensive player when the ball is in the air.”
To not call Banks a natural playmaker is absurd, but he still hasn’t received the credit he says he’s due. For one, there has been a heck of a lot of cornerback talent in the SEC, but he also looks at the lack of respect Mississippi State gets nationally, which he hopes to help change.
“Mississippi State hasn’t always been a very good football team,” he said. “We haven’t been in the national spotlight. We haven’t done what we’re supposed to do in the past to get us to the top.”
That’s just one of the motivating factors for Banks in 2012. Another is the Honey Badger. While Banks respects Mathieu’s game, he’s ready to dethrone him and steal some of the limelight from the former Heisman finalist.
As a pure cover corner, Banks has the edge, but when it comes to overall athleticism and playmaking ability, Banks might have some ground to make up. But when asked just how much, Banks wasn’t budging.
“I’m going to be Johnthan Banks and he’s going to be Tyrann Mathieu,” he said. “I’m just going to let it be.
“I’m gonna be me.”
And it’s almost a new Banks. He bypassed the NFL draft because of his love for Mississippi State and his thirst for an SEC title. With his return came a more focused and determined leader, both on and off the field.
He can thank his coaches for an extra push, but he can also thanks his youngest fan: his one-year-old son Kaiden, or KJ for short. His “gift from God” has put things in perspective for Banks. He’s matured since KJ’s birth and has learned to take on more responsibility in life. Both have transferred to the football field, making him a much more well-rounded player.
Banks wants the accolades, the respect and a championship, and along the way he wants to set an example for his son.
“I want to leave a good legacy for my son, and hopefully one day he’ll walk in my shoes,” he said.
Something says he’ll be proud.