When Dan Mullen talks about playmakers, he usually mentions a receiver like Chad Bumphis. Maybe a versatile running back like LaDarius Perkins. Perhaps even his dual-threat quarterback, Chris Relf.
However, his biggest playmakers may be in an unorthodox place - the secondary. Junior corners Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield were freshman All-Americans together and have numerous interceptions to their name. Senior safeties Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner have been among the most dependable in the conference and safety Nickoe Whitley racked up three interceptions earning freshman All-SEC honors last year.
Yes, Broomfield says, MSU's defensive backs are some of the best playmakers on the team.
"That's a big strength," Broomfield said. "That's something we want to do. Look at everybody. Look at John Banks, he played quarterback [in high school]. You look at Nickoe, he played quarterback. You look at Charles, he was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Mississippi [in high school]. All of us, we're used to having the ball in our hands and when we get it we're going to do something with it."
Both Banks and Broomfield have returned multiple interceptions back for touchdowns, most notably in their freshman year when Banks had two pick-sixes off of Florida's Tim Tebow in Starkville.
Said Banks, "If you look in the past, my past two seasons I played, anytime one of us got our hands on the ball, we probably took it back or made a big play with the ball. We got a lot of big play guys back there."
Cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith, who has been with the team since Jackie Sherrill was coaching MSU in the 1990s, said this may be the best secondary he's seen.
Smith said MSU hasn't this kind of depth since at least the 1999 and 2000 seasons, but that this secondary has the opportunity to be even better than those once they hit the field.
"This is the best built secondary I think since I've been here," Smith said. "I don't know how good they are, but I know we have a lot of depth and we have experience. To me, depth and experience is your key. We have a lot of guys that really understand the position and what it calls for, what's required."
As Smith says, the depth is key. Banks and Mitchell are known outside of Starkville, but two more players are waiting behind them to make their names known. Cornerback Darius Slay, a junior college transfer who arrived this summer, is an athletic and physical corner who is anxious to play. Whitley had impressive moments last year and has stood out in fall training camp.
When Banks was asked about Slay, who is working as Banks' backup, he used the transfer as a way to illustrate the depth at corner, saying they have seven or eight guys who can play.
Broomfield said Slay, who has numerous interceptions in fall camp, will have an opportunity to help the team immediately.
"Slay is gonna be a good player," Broomfield said "He's got great feet. The other day we were doing releases and I don't think anybody got away from him. I know he's physical. You know how our practices are, I saw him sticking his head in there, so that's encouraging. He's gonna be able to play. If you're physical, you can play for us."
Banks, perhaps more for his own comfort as a starter, said the guy on the bench people need to be ready for is a safety - Whitley.
""One guy that really don't nobody really talk about much is Nickoe," Banks said. "Nickoe, man, I can't say enough about him. If you came to practice and watched him, you'll be like, 'Wow, that's an NFL-type safety right there.' Nickoe is gonna surprise a lot of people this year. He's gonna knock a lot of people out.
Nickoe, he is definitely one of the best athletes on the team when he wants to be. He's a great person, great football player, probably an even better football player than most safeties in the SEC. I'll say this, we got three of the top safeties in the SEC. Wade, Charles. If you turn the tape on, Wade, it's probably gonna be like, 'Whoa, who is that guy?' Nickoe is gonna be like, 'Whoa, who laid that hit?' and Charles is just Charles. Everybody knows about Charles, but nobody really knows about Wade and Nickoe. That's just the type of safeties we have back there."
Banks would know about safeties, of course. He was a safety when he got to campus. He later switched to corner, then back to safety for a short period. Now, he's back to corner, where he said he expects to remain.
Outside of the four starters, Slay and Whitley, MSU has another 10 defensive backs, many of whom are vying for time this year.
Broomfield said that rather than looking over his shoulder when he sees so many hungry young players, he takes it as a sign that he's done something right.
"I take pride in the fact that we're deep," Broomfield said. "If we're deep that means the leaders are doing their job, that they're coming up to our level. We raised the bar and everybody's playing well. That's great that we're the strength of the team."
Broomfield said that depth and experience makes everyone more comfortable. With so many veterans, Broomfield said the chemistry has grown between them and that it's one of the more important aspects of what MSU's secondary does.
"It's just a confidence," Broomfield said. "You look to the man beside you, you know he's gonna do his job. That makes you that much more focused on your job. You can focus on what you gotta do because you're not worrying about Charles rolling the right way, 'is Nickoe gonna fit the right gap?' You can focus on what you gotta do and when you do it, you know the man beside you is gonna do their job."
Said Banks, "We're gonna be great back there. We all know what we're doing."
Banks also attempted to explain the mindset of those in the secondary. Banks said Mitchell didn't have any interceptions in 2010 because he wanted to get 100 tackles and focus on the running game, though Mitchell said he wants at least one interception in 2011. While it may not be a big thing for Mitchell, Banks it is the No. 1 thing for him.
"Picks, that's our big thing playing corner," Banks said. "That's what all cornerbacks want to do: get interceptions. In our defense, we're out there to tackle but people won't notice us for getting 70, 80 tackles. That's for linebackers and d-linemen and safeties. They're gonna look at us with interceptions. 'Did John Banks get six interceptions this year? Did he get three? Did he get none?' That's a big thing being cornerback, just getting picks and doing something with it."
That doesn't mean Banks thinks nothing of Mitchell, though. In fact, Banks said on two separate occasions that he thinks Mitchell is the best football player he's ever been around, and definitely the best safety in SEC.
As Smith said, the excitement is fun, but he and the rest of the team will find out in a few weeks if it is justified, when the season starts.
Of course, Banks thinks he already knows the truth about the playmakers on defense for MSU.
"From my standpoint, I know the safeties in the SEC," Banks said. "We know the corners in the SEC. we've got just as good athletes in the secondary as anybody. It's gonna be fun."