TAMPA — Positioning is everything to a cornerback, and it's no accident that Bucs rookie Johnthan Banks' locker is adjacent to that of Darrelle Revis. They are left just man to man most afternoons, talking about opposing receivers, money, life, family — you name it.
"I've done what he's said the whole season, and it's worked," Banks said, motioning to Revis.
The second-round pick from Mississippi State has had a lot to discuss with Revis.
In addition to becoming the third player in the organization to contract MRSA — the staph infection resistant to antibiotics that has shortened the seasons of kicker Lawrence Tynes and guard Carl Nicks — Banks went through a stretch during which he gave up scoreboard-changing plays and sustained a shoulder injury Nov. 17 against Atlanta.
But always, there was Revis in his ear and on the opposite side of the defense, locking up the No. 1 receiver while Banks handled the best of the rest.
That was until Sunday's 24-21 win over the Lions, when Revis went down near the end of the first half with a groin injury. Somebody had to take over the job of covering star receiver Calvin Johnson, who had caught four passes for 61 yards to that point.
The artificial turf at Ford Field became the proving ground for Banks. Time to show what you've got, kid.
"I was sitting with him on the sideline, and (Revis) told me how to play him off the line and how to jam him inside," Banks said.
The Bucs considered not assigning one player to cover Johnson. But that required a drastic change to the game plan.
"It wasn't an easy decision," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "As a matter of fact, we took the field thinking that we might just play right and left and whoever got him got him. And then we get on the field, and it was just a gut feeling that, 'Let's get Johnthan on him.' Johnthan … had gotten banged, so it's not like he'd had a full week of practice either. But you just kind of … sometimes, you get a feeling."
Banks relied on his instincts following his junior season to remain at Mississippi State rather than enter the draft. He grew up in Maben (population 871), just a half-hour drive from campus in Starkville, Miss., where he cared for his girlfriend and the couple's infant son, K.J.
Staying at home can sometimes be a good trait for a corner. And Banks benefited from the decision on and off the field, winning the Jim Thorpe award as the top defensive back in Division I-A.
But there are no receivers like the 6-foot-5, 236-pound Johnson, and Banks rose to the challenge. In the second half, Johnson had three receptions for 54 yards on eight targets, including a game-clinching interception inside the Tampa Bay 5.
"My confidence has always been high," Banks said. "I've always thought I could guard anybody. But that was big for my confidence because during your rookie season you have those ups and downs. That was big."
Banks has never been one to lack confidence even when things were unraveling earlier this season. Schiano said he wasn't surprised.
"That's the guy we drafted," Schiano said. "When I spoke to (Mississippi State coach) Dan Mullen before the draft, he said, 'This is my guy. He is a football player. He may not be the fastest guy on the clock, Greg, but this guy will step up. He's a two-time captain. And he's just a leader. And he plays, and he's mature.' And sure enough, he is. That's what we drafted, and he's living up to that. And as he gets more experience, I think he's going to get better and better."
This week, Revis is iffy with the groin strain, and Banks might be called on to cover the Panthers' top receiver, Steve Smith.
"Since Day 1, we respected (Banks). We knew he was a great corner," Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said. "He won the Thorpe award in college, so we knew he was a lockdown-caliber corner. So when his number got called, he stepped up to the plate, didn't have any fear in his eyes. He was ready for it. He was ready for the challenge. That's what you come to the National Football League for; to take on the best players."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected] and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620. Follow him on Twitter at @NFLStroud.