When Johnthan Banks takes his position on the field, he makes his victims know exactly where he is.
Banks, a senior cornerback at Mississippi State, creates his own imaginary island by marking a half circle around him on the ground with his finger. While you can’t see the crescent sign he draws with his pointer finger, you know it’s there.
It’s something former star Bulldog Fred Smoot taught him, and it’s an indication that Banks wants you to challenge him. He scoffs at your speed and waves his safety help off. To him, it’s just the two of you, and there’s no hiding.
“He’s got some confidence,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said of Banks. “That’s what you want in your corners.”
He’s also got game.
With his super sticky coverage skills and his exquisite athleticism, it’s hard to find a better cornerback in the game.
That’s why Banks carried a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder to SEC media days this summer. He knew all the corner talk would be reserved for Tyrann Mathieu. He’s always respected the Honey Badger and his game, but he’s always thought he was better.
The Honey Badger had the flash and the disruptive ability that was challenged by few, but when it came to being a true cover corner, Banks more than had the edge.
“I think I’m at the top right now,” Banks told ESPN.com in July. “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.”
Now that Mathieu is out of the league, there’s no denying Banks’ spot at the top, and he isn’t budging anytime soon.
Not only is Banks a phenomenal cover man, he’s a heck of an athlete. In high school, Banks lined up just about everywhere he could in order to touch the ball. His job now might be to disrupt people from getting the ball, but every time he lines up, he doesn’t just want a piece of the ball, he wants the whole thing.
And if he gets it, watch out. Banks can either fly right past offensive players or carefully evade them with his silky smooth moves that made him such a dangerous two-way player in his prep days. That’s why he’s tied as the active leader nationally with three career pick-sixes.
Compared to the top SEC corners last season, there’s no denying how good Banks was. He 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).
On the year, he registered 71 tackles, eight for loss, three sacks, five interceptions and defended 14 passes.
Two games into the 2012 season, and Banks is once again making noise. After being relatively left alone against Jackson State, Banks crippled Auburn and quarterback Kiehl Frazier with two huge interceptions. People will say that Frazier’s throws were so bad that Banks had no choice but to catch them, but that shouldn’t downplay what Banks did. If he wasn’t in the right place, those plays wouldn’t have happened.
“I think I made a great play on the ball,” Banks said.
He made two great plays on the ball. Banks was in the perfect place both times because he’s that smart and that good. You don’t lead all active players nationally with 14 career interceptions based on poor quarterback play or luck. Banks has earned his picks and if he gets two more he’ll tie Walt Harris for the school record. Six more, and he’ll tie the SEC career record (20).
Banks is just a different cat. His impeccable vision allows him to scan the field quickly and precisely. His size (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) makes him imposing and helps him shadow receivers at times. And his athleticism allows him to make play after play.
The competition will only get better against Banks, but so will he, as he thinks about schooling better players.