New, improved Banks leads MSU into Florida

It would be amazing to imagine what Johnthan Banks thinks would be a spectacular play.
He’s still shocked at the reception he gets on and off campus one year removed from a game against Florida in which he entered the school’s record book for longest interception return and only player with two touchdowns off interceptions.
“I didn’t really make any big plays,” Banks said. “Corey Broomfield tipped one ball and Pernell McPhee hit the quarterback to make him throw the other one up in the air. I didn’t do anything except run under the ball and catch it.”
Immediately after he returned a pass from then-Florida quarterback Tim Tebow 102 yards for a touchdown at the end of the first half, MSU players, coaches and officials all say Davis-Wade Stadium shook in a way never felt since that Saturday night in 2009.
“I was exhausted,” Banks joked after last year’s Florida game. “It meant so much to me because I did it against one of the best players to ever play college football and meant so much at that point for my team.”
Banks finished the 2009 season by being named to the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman team by the league's coaches after totaling 34 tackles, four interceptions and three pass breakups in just six starts.
As a former Starkville Daily News Area Player of the Year, Banks was certainly not a secret to the surrounding communities but after an historical performance as a true freshman against one of the countries dominant college football programs on national television, Banks not only gained publicity for himself but also his hometown and high school.
“After that game I probably had about 1,000 friend requests on Facebook and hundreds of text messages," Banks said. "Everybody (in Starkville) knew who I was when I go through town just because of that game. It went crazy."
Banks is hopeful he can showcase his talents along with the other 10 players on the Mississippi State defense as they travel to Gainesville this week (6 p.m., ESPNU) in the hope of upsetting the 22nd-ranked Gators on the road for the first time since 1965.
“We just need to take this past year’s game and take it down to Florida,” Banks said. “It’s pretty much the same offense and be ready for the passing attack.”
The ESPN broadcast duo of Brad Nessler and Todd Blackledge relayed a story on the air last year about Mississippi State coaching staff being confident they’d be able to sign Banks out of East Webster High School because “they'd found a kid nobody had seen because his school doesn't even show up on a modern day GPS."
“He went to a (Class) 1A high school and you’re playing offense, defense, special teams and never came off the field,” Mullen said. “You star on the basketball team, star on the track team and you kind of do everything – you’re a ball guy. John is now developing himself into a football player.”
While starring at East Webster, Banks accounted for 1,740 yards of total offense and 17 touchdowns while playing quarterback but also starred on the defensive side of the ball, making 35 tackles and seven pass interceptions during his senior season.
Banks says he returns to East Webster High for every home game and is impressed to watch his former team currently go through its first eight games undefeated and be a favorite to reach the Class 2A North Half title game next month.
“Every week I’ll go home at some point and stop by the school to holler at coach or he’ll text me every so often,” Banks said. “That’s my home and it’ll always be my home so we’ll always be close.”
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound defensive back wasn’t sure as he stepped on the Starkville campus last year if he was big enough to play Division 1 college football but a year removed a lot of things have changed his perspective from skeptical to confident.
The first thing that initially changed for Banks was his defensive coordinator as Manny Diaz became the new defensive boss at MSU and after watching extensive tape of the 2009 season decided to change Banks from his temporary role at safety to a more permanent position of cornerback.
“We remarked the other day that we couldn't imagine where we'd be if we hadn't moved him,” Diaz said. “We think he's a natural there because he gives us a good big-sized presence at corner and a very detail-oriented football player and smart. We look to him to get better and better with all the experience he gets."
Banks has said since the spring he loves his new position but considers himself a completely different player from 2009, not simply because of where he lines up, but by the knowledge he’s gained from a year of football in the SEC.
“Last year I honestly didn’t know what I was doing,” Banks said. “You can ask anybody out there with me and half the time I was on the field, I was just out there because I’m athletic.”
Going through the same transition as true freshmen, fellow MSU cornerback Corey Broomfield can vouch for the confusion he and Banks were having with the transition from high school to arguably the highest level of college football in the country.
“The coaches are doing a great job of preparing us but of course you get out there and get a little nervous,” Broomfield said. “When we’re out there this year, we feel prepared and confident about our abilities translating into why we’re supposed to do certain things.”
Diaz, who has playfully needled his young defensive back during this spring game with sarcastic questions like “John, can you only play against Tim Tebow? He’s not going to be on the field this year,” said the lack of deflections or interceptions for Banks this year is not at all a lack of production but a sign of respect by opposing offenses.
"Sometimes when they don't throw it to your guy, you don't get noticed, but that's because you are covering the guy,” Diaz said. “He's done a great job of being dependable and being where he's supposed to be."
So while Mississippi State fans would love to see the same performance out of Banks against the Gators this week, he insists they’ve seen a different human being out on the football field in 2010.
“I’m bigger, stronger, faster and using my head more at my new position,” Banks said. “I’ve just got a different swagger to me when I’m out there now like I’m the best player on the field. When you play with teammates and coaches like I have, you better feel that way.”