SOUTH BEND — Aaron Banks turned to his left out of his stance, cut behind left tackle Liam Eichenberg, turned the corner and set his sights on Bowling Green cornerback JaJuan Hudson.
The 5-foot-10, 168-pound freshman didn’t stand a chance against the 6-6, 325-pound Banks. Notre Dame’s starting left guard needed 10 steps to square up Hudson and absolutely flatten him.
Hudson tried to go low on Banks, but that only resulted in Banks essentially belly-flopping on top of him and smashing him into the ground.
Running back Tony Jones Jr. followed Banks through the hole in the defense he created, jumped over Banks’ feet and hustled for 26 yards before being tackled by the first defender actually in a position to do so.
The sight of a pulling Banks resulting in a successful run has become an important part in Notre Dame’s increased production in the running game the past two weeks. In wins over Virginia and Bowling Green, the Irish have rushed for 390 yards and five touchdowns.
In those last two games, Banks has pulled to the play side on 11 designed runs. They’ve resulted in 112 rushing yards and one touchdown including runs of 16, 24, 26 and 27 yards.
After Notre Dame all but abandoned the run (14 carries for 46 yards) in its 23-17 loss at Georgia, the Irish running game has started to find some momentum.
“We’re catching stride,” Banks said. “We’re starting to assert our dominance against D-lines. The physical nature of our offensive line is starting to show itself.”
Even though Notre Dame returned four starters on the offensive line, it has taken a few weeks for the unit to play its best football. With Jarrett Patterson settling in as the newcomer at center, there’s no confusion on who is being asked to get the job done.
Brian Kelly figured it was only a matter of time.
“It’s the maturation of a group of five guys with a new center,” Kelly said. “The running backs getting some continuity there. All those things coming together. Cole Kmet back in the lineup as a blocking tight end. Tommy Tremble being young but now starting to feel some confidence. It’s a little bit of all those things coming together.”
Tight ends Kmet and Tremble have become valuable pieces in the running game. Playing with two tight ends on the field has given Notre Dame’s offense balance and unpredictability. Kmet and Tremble also bring physicality.
On the 26-yard Jones run against Bowling Green, Kmet and Tremble lined up on the left side of the line with Kmet on the line of scrimmage and Tremble to Kmet’s left and behind the line. Banks and eventually Jones ran through the crease created by Kmet sealing off a linebacker to the inside and Tremble escorting a linebacker to the outside.
That kind of effort from the tight ends makes the offensive line proud.
“They’re some big, physical guys,” Banks said. “Tommy Tremble definitely brings the wood. Cole Kmet’s a huge, strong guy. Their physical presence helps us move guys off the ball.”
Thursday nights are pizza nights for Notre Dame’s offensive line. It’s a weekly tradition during the season. The tight ends are invited too.
One of the players will host the gathering and everyone brings their own pizza. It’s become such a staple that Notre Dame’s social media team has even turned the tradition into content. The group recorded a series of videos earlier this season in Banks’ living room.
“Welcome to Thursday’s pizza night, where we tackle the really tough questions,” Banks says at the beginning of some of the clips.
The questions are designed to create laughs. If you could play another sport, what would it be? (Banks went with water polo.) Which offensive lineman would you live on a deserted island with? Who has the best and worst hands on the offensive line?
The question that elicited the hottest discussion was if pineapple belongs on pizza. Banks said yes. Josh Lugg and John Dirksen said no. Dirksen, a sophomore guard, countered by asking if you’d put pineapple on a hamburger.
Banks replied, “Yes. I’ve had one of those. They’re delicious.”
The short video clips can only offer glimpses of the relationships among the offensive linemen and tight ends. But even if the questions are trite, the bond isn’t fabricated. There’s a reason why some refer to Notre Dame’s offensive line as the herd. They’re always moving together.
“I live with Liam, Cole and a couple other guys,” Banks said. “Other O-linemen live together. There’s always a connection that we have. We’ll go home and watch film together. ‘So if we see this, this is how we’ll react. All right, we have to go here with this.’ Being together all the time, there’s a cohesion among the group.”
The connection on the offensive line drew Banks to Notre Dame as a recruit. With plenty of Pac-12 offers to stay on the West Coast, the four-star product of El Cerrito (Calif.) High chose to be a part of the offensive line brotherhood at Notre Dame. He was hesitant at first.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know. It’s in the middle of nowhere in Indiana,’” Banks said. “And then I took a visit and I was like, ‘I’m sold on this place. I’m definitely coming here.’”
Banks followed an unofficial visit in early August 2016 with an official visit for Notre Dame’s 36-28 loss to Michigan State in September. Despite the Irish finishing the season 4-8, Banks announced a verbal commitment to Notre Dame in December.
“The guys were just so close,” Banks said. “That was something I wanted to be a part of. Plus the people here are so nice.”
The pizza isn’t bad either, even if Banks typically opts for a chain rather than any of the local favorites on pizza night.
“I like to switch it up. I like Jets. I’ll do the Jets buffalo chicken,” Banks said. “Sometimes I go to Blaze and just keep it simple. Do a cheap Dominos or Little Caesars.”
Aaron Banks doesn’t have any ill will towards USC.
He even liked the Trojans a bit as a recruit. USC made his top 10 from an offer list of 30 schools, but didn’t make the cut to his seven finalists: Notre Dame, Michigan, UCLA, Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee and California.
So trying to get Banks to say anything controversial about the Trojans before Saturday’s rivalry game in Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) was a lost cause.
“I don’t have any beef with them personally,” Banks said after a reporter asked him if he had a strong dislike of USC.
That doesn’t mean Banks doesn’t appreciate the rivalry.
“There’s a history between us and them,” Banks said. “They have good players, but we also have good players. It’s nice to get after some good talent.”
Banks, a junior, will be making his 12th consecutive start on Saturday. He filled in for injured left guard Alex Bars to start the final six games of 2018 and didn’t let a summer foot surgery sideline him for any games this season.
The prospect of having surgery in June was a bit scary for Banks, but his foot hasn’t limited him at all.
“I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had a problem with it,” Banks said. “It was a very quick recovery.”
That has allowed Banks to make the strides in his junior season that left tackle Liam Eichenberg began to see in the spring.
“His footwork has improved a tremendous amount,” Eichenberg said in March. “Another thing with him is he’s not tentative either. He’s not hesitating. He’s really attacking. Whenever we have a three-tech (defensive tackle), he’s attacking it, he’s driving that left leg through and gaining ground. It just makes my job easier.”
With experience, Banks has started to pick up the nuances of offensive line play, understand Notre Dame’s offensive schemes better and recognize what defenses are trying to do against him.
Banks can identify when a linebacker may be blitzing or when a defensive tackle may be setting up a stunt.
“You start to notice that you’re picking up things faster,” Banks said. “You can see certain tips from certain guys.”
As if Banks needs more advantages. Regardless, Banks will try to impose his will on defenders. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Bowling Green cornerback or a USC defensive lineman.
“We try to be physical every game,” Banks said. “We don’t try to turn it on for certain games and tone it down for other games. We’re going to approach this game like every other game and try to be as physical as we can be.”