by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The perception that Mississippi State’s 7-0 start and attendant rise to No. 11 in the BCS standings was the byproduct of an easy schedule is one Bulldogs’ cornerback Johnthan Banks has heard before. That doesn’t mean Banks was even the least bit rattled by the criticism.
“I don’t listen to the media,” Banks said after a bowl practice Thursday. “That’s what they get paid to do.”
As his statement makes clear, Banks doesn’t concern himself with inconsequential noise. He focuses on the tasks in front of him. And this season, as his NFL prospects came under sharp focus during his team’s mid-season down turn, Banks proved he’s better at what he does – lock down receivers, intercept passes, make tackles, and all the other responsibilities that go along with being a cornerback – than arguably any other player at his position.
Earlier this month, Banks received the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation’s best defensive back. He beat out finalists Philip Thomas of Fresno State and Dee Milliner of Alabama, who Banks said handed the Bulldogs their toughest loss of the season. It was Mississippi State’s first real challenge of 2012, and the outcome – Alabama was ranked No. 1 in the country at the time – sapped away most of the positive momentum built up over the first two months of the season.
“That was one of the toughest games I’ve ever played,” Banks said. “We were undefeated going in, and they beat us pretty good.”
While the Bulldogs would go on to lose four of their last five games, including the annual Egg Bowl rivalry game with in-state foe Ole Miss, Banks continued to hone his game individually. The way Banks’ season ended, considering where the Bulldogs were through seven games, was not exactly picturesque finish to a successful four-year career, but Banks relished his individual honor all the same. It was a lifelong dream come true.
“Seeing my family, my teammates, all behind me, it was a really great feeling,” Banks said of winning the Thorpe Award. “Coming up as a DB, that’s something you’re always striving for.”
With the regular season behind him, Banks is focusing on two things. The first is resting, training, conditioning and going whatever lengths necessary to get healthy. That is the main priority for pretty much any player looking ahead to April’s NFL draft, and for a player who could very well claim a first-round selection, getting over any nagging injuries from the grueling regular season is especially important. When teams analyze potential first-round picks, even the smallest nicks and ailments are examined with a critical eye.
“That’s the biggest thing for me right now,” he said. “I just need to make sure I’m healthy.”
In ESPN College Scouting Director Todd McShay’s latest mock draft, Banks is pegged as the 25th overall pick. It is far too early to make definitive projections about draft placement, but given Banks’ consistency, size (6’ 2’’, 185 pounds) and speed (an estimated 4.5-second 40-yd dash time), there is a good chance he’ll hear his name called on the Draft’s first day.
What makes Banks’ professional forecast even more impressive is that NFL scouts believe him to be a first-round talent despite a senior season in which he “didn’t play up to my level.” Banks pinpointed one area in need of improvement as he makes the transition to the professional ranks: one-on-one coverage.
“I definitely made some plays,” he said. “But I got beat a few times. But who doesn’t get beat? It happens,” he said.
Apparently NFL talent evaluators weren’t convinced – or at the very least were willing to overlook some of Banks’ mistakes. Nor was the Thorpe Association voting committee swayed by his personal evaluation.
The individual component of Banks’ football future floated around his mind – fans aren’t the only ones keeping constant tabs on draft “stock” – throughout the regular season, and will consume his next few months as he prepares for pre-draft workouts and evaluations.
His second focus is the Gator bowl. From now until January 1, Banks will preoccupy himself with finding ways to help his defense contain Northwestern’s option offense. He’s wasted no time hitting the film room.
“I’ve watched tape on them,” he said. “They are very well coached. They have a very good running back, a running quarterback. That’s a very good team.”
Above all else, after a disappointing end to the regular season, Banks wants nothing more than for him and his teammates to go out with a win. If history holds to form, Mississippi State, winners of its last five bowl games, tied for the longest streak in FBS DI (an unimaginable run of success for Northwestern fans still yearning for their team's first bowl victory in 64 years), will help Banks check off yet another goal on his lengthy list of college achievements.
“It would mean a lot,” Banks said of the importance of finishing his career with a win in the Gator Bowl. “It’s very important to me. Everybody wants to go out as a winner.”