Today, Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay have the biggest interviews of their life.
At the NFL Combine, the former Mississippi State cornerbacks are taking part in a job interview of sorts, working out in front of NFL scouts, coaches, general managers and media, with TV cameras rolling and every move, every tenth of a second, scrutinized across the country.
Banks has transformed himself from a zero-star recruit almost no one wanted to a Thorpe Award winner and All-American who many think will go in the first round of April’s NFL Draft.
A four-year starter with a boatload of interceptions to his name, Banks has plenty of tape for NFL teams to see.
One of the keys, many have said, is his 40-yard dash at the Combine.
“I’m working on anything, but the 40-yard dash is pretty important. I’ve been working very hard at it, trying to get everything perfect. It’s like trying to be a track guy for two days. I just want to give them what they want,” Banks said. “I talked to a few scouts, but they really haven’t given me much feedback about what’s going on because everyone’s really waiting on the Combine.”
That dash, of course, takes place this morning in Indianapolis.
Otherwise, Banks says, they know what he brings to the table. He’s instinctive and smart, and perhaps most importantly, he’s long.
So long that MSU quarterback Tyler Russell said he had to start adjusting his throws in practice because of it. Russell would think he had a window to get the ball to a receiver, then Banks would swoop in, throw one of his lengthy arms in the air and bat down the ball.
The length, in addition to his above-average height for the position, gives Banks some distinct advantages.
“I can do things other corners can’t,” he said. “It’s very valuable. If you don’t throw it high enough, if you think you can squeeze it in the corner, that’s where my length takes place.”
Taking the natural length he has, Banks has added to it with a strong regimen of studying film on opposing quarterbacks and receivers.
Pairing ability with knowledge, he says, is what led to a lot of his success.
“Most of the interceptions I got I tried to bait the quarterback,” Banks said. “Make him think they’re open and bam, I’m there. It’s been a blessing and I just thank God for my size and everything he’s blessed me with.”
And it’s that studying of film which helped Banks’ teammate Slay work his way onto the field and become such a force of his own in his senior year, as the two would spend hours together breaking down opponents.
Of course, Slay’s path was a bit different. A Georgia native, Slay signed with MSU out of high school, but ultimately had to go to junior college.
From there, he became one of the nation’s more sought-after corners, and despite advances from several other big programs, Slay ultimately decided to make it to his intended destination. However, by that time, Banks and Corey Broomfield had entrenched themselves as starters at cornerback, so Slay, despite his accolades, had to wait.
“I had to be patient and learn. As one of the top JUCO corners, it was kind of hard,” Slay said. “One thing I know for a fact, I got a lot of help from Corey Broomfield. He was my roommate. He kept me motivated, kept me positive because it was hard to come from JUCO.”
Two things led to the rise for Slay: his undeniable speed, and the opportunity to play next to Banks, one of the most well-known corners in the country by the time the 2012 season started.
As far back as September, New York Giants General Manager Jerry Reese traveled to Starkville to watch a game and said himself many would discover Slay simply because they’re watching MSU for Banks.
“I did enough to earn my own respect, but he gave me help,” Slay said of Banks.
Slay, who has been training in Tampa, Fl., at the same facility as Chad Bumphis, knows speed is his greatest asset, but believes he brings more than just that.
“[I’m] very physical,” he said. “I love to compete.”
Entering the draft, his speed helps him in one area MSU didn’t get to see much of: special teams.
“That’s one of my specialties,” Slay said. “That’s why I was one of the top recruits out of JUCO because I returned kicks and did all kind of stuff. I’m real good at it and I’d love to do it at the next level.”
Yet another skill he and Banks, despite being so different in style, have in common.
But both have versatility, something teams certainly value.
Banks, of course, is perfectly willing to spend time on special teams.
“If somebody’s gonna invest a lot of money in me, I’m gonna do whatever it takes to be successful and what it takes to help my team win,” he said.
The journey for Banks has been interesting, and this point in his story could’ve easily come a year earlier as he contemplated turning pro after his junior season before ultimately deciding to remain at MSU.
He says it’s a decision he’s glad he made, though he admits he’s a bit more stressed this year than last as he takes the biggest stage yet in his career.
Luckily, he hasn’t been alone as he trains at MSU and finishes classes.
“I’m mentally prepared,” Banks said. “[Strength] Coach Matt Balis, Coach Mullen, Coach Brewster, they get me through it. They know what it takes to get there. Charles Mitchell came home and he’s got me some drills and stuff. I’ve got my confidence up. I talk to Charles and Vick Ballard and Fletcher Cox all the time. They keep me up to date on what to expect. Boobie and Jamar Chaney.”
The horde of those around Banks from his time at State with NFL experience is both vast and supportive, as he’s even talked to players from before his time – like Fred Smoot – who have been to the NFL, gone through the practices and dealt with the scrutiny.
Although, one part of the transition few mention is his family. His wife Mallory and his son Kaiden are with him wherever he goes, a young family just a few months away from moving from the one place they know, and they have no idea where they’ll go.
“It’s very exciting for me and my family,” Banks said. “We always wanted to experience the world a little bit.”
Though the Mississippi native admits he’s sad that his son won’t grow up in the Magnolia State.
“Hopefully, we’ll be back one day,” he said.
The period of transition for MSU’s two corners is also an opportunity for reflection on their time in Maroon and White.
Asked what his favorite moment was from his career, Banks said “there’s no question,” and immediately took a trip back in time to his freshman year.
“My 102-yard pick off of Tim Tebow,” Banks said with a laugh. “I can remember it like it was yesterday. I remember Broomfield tipping it and me running up under it and Pernell McPhee getting out in front and blocking and smoking Tebow and Chris White catching up and running with me.”
Tebow, McPhee and White are all in the NFL now, just waiting on Banks to join the party.
As for Slay, his brightest moment wasn’t too different, also in his first year at MSU.
“My Georgia play,” Slay said. “The 72-yard touchdown [on the interception]. One of my best plays. I’m from Georgia and lot of my family was there. That was my first game they came to.”
Funny that the two cornerbacks, two of the best defenders in the country, had their happiest moments finding a way to score a touchdown.