Mississippi State’s Perimeter Power
By BJ Bennett
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Johnthan Banks returns as the leader of a Mississippi State team that has considerable talent and experience on the edge.
Like most SEC programs, Mississippi State has long prided itself on strong play at the line of scrimmage. From Pork Chop Womack to Fletcher Cox, the Bulldogs have consistently been tough in the trenches. As Dan Mullen continues to look to upend division foes like Alabama, Arkansas and LSU, he'll do so this fall by looking downfield. With an established trio of senior receivers and an all-star senior tandem at cornerback, Mississippi State's push towards contention will start on the perimeter.
Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith have combined to catch 183 passes the past two years alone. Collectively, the senior trifecta helps form one of the top receiving corps in the SEC. Bumphis, with 101 career grabs, has at least one catch in 36 of 37 career games played. Clark led the team in both catches and receiving yards last season and has scoring receptions in both of the Bulldogs' bowl wins under Mullen. Smith had a touchdown catch against national champion Alabama this past fall and caught the first touchdown in a one-score Egg Bowl triumph over Ole Miss in 2010.
"They were generating speed and momentum and we just couldn't bring them down, to give up that many yards is just unacceptable," Memphis head coach Larry Porter said after his defense allowed 336 yards passing to Mississippi State.
Clark had a 33-yard touchdown catch in the Bulldogs' spring game back in April. The versatile Bumphis had a four-yard touchdown run. New starting quarterback Tyler Russell had scoring strikes to redshirt freshman Joe Morrow and sophomore Jameon Lewis, who finished with ten catches for 144 yards. With the aforementioned big three, those two underclassmen, Malcolm Johnson, Ricco Sanders and Brandon Heavens, State has incredible depth at the receiver positions.
"He was getting open and making some plays, and that's what you want. He has played in many games, and that's why we expect him to make plays each game," Mullen said of Lewis in the spring game, adding the following of Morrow, "I thought he did some good things. There are still some things he has to clean up. He has to get that out of his system and then he'll be good to go."
In seniors Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield, Mississippi State may have a cover corner duo better than anyone in the SEC outside of Baton Rouge. Banks ranks right behind LSU's Tyrann Mathieu as the best in the league and has earned pre-season All-American attention this summer from Phil Steele. His banner fall saw him register 71 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks, nine pass break ups and five interceptions. Broomfield is in need of a bounce-back year after some inconsistencies in 2011. He has nine career interceptions, however, to go along with 10.5 career tackles for loss. Banks and Broomfield both have a remarkable knack for the big play; each has returned three interceptions back for touchdowns in their career.
"Obviously Johnthan Banks, with two interception returns for touchdowns, the one at the end of the half, that was just an amazing play by him," Mullen explained back in 2009 when his then true-freshman corner scored twice off interceptions of Tim Tebow in a loss to top-ranked Florida. "He is a guy that came out of high school and did everything for his high school. He was a receiver, running back, quarterback, and the point guard on the basketball team. He is a football player and you have a guy with that type of ball skills and we think at the start of pre-season camp that he could be a heck of a receiver. We just loved him and thought that we needed that athleticism on the defensive side of the field right now."
JUCO transfer Darius Slay followed in the footsteps of Banks and Broomfield last season, returning an Aaron Murray interception 72 yards for a score in Athens.
Banks returns as the leader of a team that has considerable talent and experience on the edge. Spring practice was a showcase of that ability as it was strength on strength during live drills. The battles between the Bulldog receivers and cornerbacks were among the most competitive in the country this past April. Banks doubled up on the action, catching a 17-yard pass in the Maroon-and-White game.
"I'm glad I came back for my senior season," he said after the scrimmage. "I think we can be good."
The starting point for this team, this season: speed. Mullen's Mississippi State can run. They have both the names and numbers at receiver and corner to keep coming at you and, potentially, the SEC.