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Explosive cornerback Slay bursts onto scene at Mississippi State

Courtesy of Mississippi State Media Relations

Darius Slay has four interceptions in the first four games of the season for the No. 20 Bulldogs. He is tied for second in the nation in that category.

From the moment Darius Slay stepped on the field at Itawamba (Miss.) Community College, it was clear why Mississippi State wanted him.

On the first play of his college career, Slay returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.

“If I had to use one word to describe Darius, it would be explosive,” Itawamba head coach Jon Williams said. “He’s just a very gifted athlete, he’s an explosive player. I think he could be just as explosive as any receiver.”

Slay was no stranger to the big play with the Indians. The cornerback forced three fumbles and hauled in three interceptions in two seasons. Both years, he was named All-Region and All-State as a cornerback and kick returner.

During one game his sophomore year, Williams said, ICC trailed on the final play of the game. Itawamba sent the cornerback onto the field for one snap on offense. Slay took a bubble screen and scored to give the Indians the victory.

Slay still isn’t sure why so few schools looked at him coming out of high school.

He had the size at 6 feet tall — though his 176-pound frame may have been a bit small — and certainly the speed with a 4.37 40-yard dash time at a 2008 Scout.com combine in Jacksonville. But the Brunswick, Ga., native garnered just a two-star ranking from Scout.com.

“It’s hard to explain,” Slay said. “I don’t really know about that because I feel like I was there with most of the five-star recruits and all that. … I felt like I played like a five-star every game.”

Mississippi State, Kentucky and Troy were the only schools that offered Slay a scholarship out of high school. Slay originally committed to play for the Bulldogs, but his grades kept him from qualifying academically.

MSU wasn’t ready to give up on Slay, though, so they helped him enroll at Itawamba (Miss.) Community College.

“We recruited him and we thought we had found ourselves a really good defensive back,” Mississippi State cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith said. “We knew that he was a talented guy.”

Slay had an immediate effect upon arriving in Starkville, Miss. The cornerback played in all 13 games, including the Music City Bowl, during his junior season.

“We knew that it was a real long shot for him,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said on the Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference about Slay reaching his potential. “Once we got him here on campus we realized, as far as athleticism and ability to play corner, that was what we had.”

But it wasn’t until this season that he broke out.

Slay has already grabbed four interceptions in four games for the No. 20 Bulldogs, tied for second in the nation.

“Coach always makes me do ball skills in practice,” Slay said. “He makes sure I can catch the ball and do my job, be where I’m supposed to be.”

As much as Slay’s instincts and skill set led to his interception numbers, the coaching is just as responsible.

The Mississippi State defense emphasizes forcing turnovers, and it’s shown in the Bulldogs’ best-in-the-nation, plus-13 turnover margin.

“We run to the ball, that’s what it is,” Slay said. “We run to the ball and we get turnovers, and we work on that every day in practice.”

Slay has also benefitted from playing opposite one of the best corners in the nation.

Johnthan Banks was named first-team preseason All-Southeastern Conference by SEC coaches. The 6-foot-2-inch cornerback has hauled in three interceptions of his own this season and is projected as a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

“(Banks) has a nice body of work where he’s been a productive player, and Darius plays opposite from him,” Smith said. “So consequently it seems to me, offenses they tend to throw over where Darius is, a little bit more than they would Johnthan.”

Slay also has a cast of NFL veterans giving him advice.

Former MSU cornerback Fred Smoot showed up at Mississippi State practice in the preseason and had some words of advice for the current Bulldogs cornerbacks.

But the entire secondary benefitted from that. Slay has another NFL veteran behind him.

Slay’s cousin Dwayne Slay starred as a safety at Texas Tech before being signed by the Chicago Bears. He’s now out of football after injuring his hamstring, but he’s still one of his cousin’s biggest football influences.

“He taught me a lot of what the game’s about and he keeps me updated,” Darius Slay said. “A lot of folks is in my corner helping me out.”

Williams isn’t surprised in the least bit by Slay’s success at MSU. In fact, he’s surprised it didn’t come sooner.

There are few places to nitpick Slay’s game. Slay has every tool necessary to excel at cornerback, and this year, it’s finally all paying off at Mississippi State.

In describing how those tools all come together, nobody puts it more succinctly than the man who works with Slay every day.

Said Smith: “He’s got really good size, he has great feet and he has really good ball skills, and he loves to play cornerback. So that’s a pretty good combination, isn’t it?”

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