DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – Not long ago, Johnthan Banks was named the best defensive back in college football. More recently than that, he was the top cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Now he’s a reclamation project on the Lions – acquired on Tuesday via a trade – looking to resurrect a fading career. How quickly it can all fall apart.
Or, as Banks might prefer, how poetically it can all be saved.
In moving from Tampa Bay to Detroit, the 27-year-old cornerback finds himself reunited with Darius Slay, his teammate at Mississippi State, and Tony Oden, the Lions’ defensive backs coach who guided Banks through his first NFL season.
“It does make it a little easier with Slay here and T.O. I know T.O., he coached and drafted me. Just coming here, man, for a new start, it’s a blessing. And I’m thankful to be here with Slay to see him go out and compete every day like we did in college,” Banks said.
It was at Mississippi State, with Slay by his side, that Banks won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2012, after posting 63 tackles and four interceptions in his senior season. And it was in Tampa Bay, with Oden in his ear, that Banks took the NFL by storm, racking up 55 tackles and three interceptions as a rookie.
“Working with T.O. my rookie year was probably the most fun I had. T.O. knows the game well, I learned a lot from T.O.,” Banks said. “When I was playing down in Tampa when T.O. left, I was still using some of the stuff that he taught me. I couldn’t use all of it because it was different schemes and techniques but I still to this day remember just about everything he taught me in Tampa as a rookie.”
The sky seemed like the limit for Banks after his first NFL season, and he pushed the bar even higher in his second. In 2014, he doubled his number of passes defended (10), while tallying four more picks and 50 more tackles. After two seasons in the NFL, no second-year player had more interceptions than the 2012 Thorpe Award-winner out of Mississippi State.
“I’ve been successful in this league before, got seven interceptions in my two years that I really played. But it’s been fun, man, I just got a knack for the ball. If you throw the ball around me too much,” Banks said, flashing a smile, “I’m going to get one of them eventually.”
Strangely, Banks hasn’t gotten one since 2014. His numbers took a big drop in 2015 as he started just seven games. This season, Banks barely found his way onto the field, playing in five games, starting none and spending the last two as a healthy scratch.
His stunted development can be attributed, in part, to the lack of continuity in the Buccaneers’ coaching staff. In his four seasons in Tampa Bay, Banks played under three different head coaches, three different defensive coordinators and six different positional coaches. A mentoring process that began in harmony with Oden ended in disarray with his myriad replacements.
“It’s tough to adjust every year,” Banks said. “I mean, Tampa’s a great place, I respect Coach (Dirk) Koetter, I respect the Glazers, I think they have a fine organization. But every year when you get a new defense, new defensive coordinator, new defensive backs coach, everybody wants to mold and twist you and make you into this player and that player. It kind of gets old and you kind of loose your fire for the game. It’s frustrating.
“But like I said, I’m blessed to be back here with T.O. and get back to work with this guy. I know him, I know what he wants and I know what he expects. So I’ll try to get it done.”
At 6’2, 185 lbs., Banks possesses an unusual build for his position. Most cornerbacks are smaller, more compact players – like Lions’ safety Glover Quin. Quin met Banks for the first time on Wednesday afternoon, prior to the team’s practice, and instantly envisioned him as an aggressive defender.
“I just met him today. He looks like a tall, long-armed type of guy,” Quin said. “I don’t know what Tampa was running but Tampa historically was a cover-2 type of team and he doesn’t strike me as a cover-2-type of corner. Being tall, skinny, he strikes me more as a man-to-man, get-my-hands-on-you, jam type of guy.
“Like I said, I don’t know what was going on (in Tampa), but hopefully he comes here and learns what we’re doing and can come in and contribute and help us out. Obviously, he’s a talented guy.”
Jim Caldwell said the Lions see Banks as a corner, despite the fact that he was sometimes featured as a safety in college.
“He’s long, he’s got speed and we’ve had a couple guys obviously (who) played a little bit with him,” Caldwell said, drawing the link between Banks, Slay and Oden. “So we had a pretty good feel for him. We’re excited about him.”
It’s unclear how much – if at all – Banks will play this weekend versus the Minnesota Vikings. As the newest Lion noted, he has plenty of work to do yet, beginning with burying his nose in the team’s playbook.
But with Slay a question mark for Sunday with a hamstring injury, it may be that Banks has to learn on the fly. If so, he is confident in his ability to deliver.
“When I go out there, I feel like I can do anything any corner can do. That’s how I feel,” he said. “I’m not the most athletic, I’m not the fastest guy, but I think I’m special. I’m long, I can do things that I don’t think other long corners can do. But I just go out there and compete, man, play hard, be physical and try to make plays.”
Those words have come to fruition for Banks before, first with Slay at Mississippi State and then with Oden in Tampa Bay. He’s rejoining forces with both of them in Detroit, and hoping the results fall in line.