Notre Dame 'bearing' witness to left guard Aaron Banks' physical development, versatility

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

One 7-on-7 tournament stuck out to Jacob Rincon when he recounted the versatility Aaron Banks brought for the El Cerrito (Calif.) High football program.

It was the summer before his senior season, and Banks attended the tournament to support his teammates. What Banks didn’t know was that he would be asked to play. At that point, Banks weighed more than 300 pounds and played right tackle and defensive end. Those positions have no use in a 7-on-7 format featuring skill players.

But the Gauchos were short on players. So Banks agreed to line up as a tight end and middle linebacker, two positions that were foreign to him.

“We put him at tight end at the goal line, threw the ball up to him and he was catching touchdowns,” said Rincon, who served as El Cerrito defensive coordinator before being named head coach in 2017. “He played wherever we needed him to play. Whatever we needed, he went and played it.”

That willingness to adapt carried with Banks to Notre Dame. He backed up right tackle Robert Hainsey in 2018 before moving to left guard when starter Alex Bars suffered a season-ending knee injury against Stanford. Banks’ play in the last six games that season cemented him as the permanent starter.

Against Florida State two weeks ago, Banks slid to left tackle in the second quarter after Liam Eichenberg temporarily exited the game with an eye injury. In 19 plays across four possessions with Banks at left tackle, the Irish gained 170 yards and scored three touchdowns. They dropped the Seminoles 42-26.

Through four games this season, Banks has helped the Irish rank among the best nationally in pass protection and rushing offense. He has allowed zero sacks and just one pressure on 112 dropbacks. No Irish starter has yielded as few pressures, though Eichenberg (two), center Jarrett Patterson (two), right guard Tommy Kramer (three) and Hainsey (four) have played well. In 844 snaps last season, Banks allowed only two sacks.

The group also has provided a considerable push and significant holes for the running game. In the national rankings, Notre Dame comes in at No. 7 in rushing yards per game (261) and No. 6 in yards per carry (5.83).

With the help of Banks, the Irish offensive line has emerged as an early contender for the Joe Moore Award.

“I love watching Banks play,” Hainsey said, “because I know every time he goes out there, he’s just going to go out there with everything he has. So that’s what he brings. He brings the tenacity. And obviously, he’s a massive, massive human. So he can’t be stopped when he’s in the zone.”

At 6-foot-6, 330, Banks weighs 13 pounds heavier than Notre Dame’s second-largest offensive lineman in right guard Tommy Kraemer (6-6, 317). Yet Banks has proven he can play inside or outside, increasing his value as a NFL Draft prospect. He also has established himself as one of the best left guards in the country.

And if Notre Dame must revert to a backup plan due to a starter being out from an injury or COVID-19, Banks has proven he’s capable of improvising at another position.

“I think that just having the background of basketball just helps me with my versatility along the offensive line,” Banks said. “Going from left guard to left tackle, there’s not too much of a difference. I think switching sides would be a little different, or maybe a little more difficult. But as far as bumping out, we work on playing guard and tackle throughout camp, throughout the year, for instances like that. When somebody goes down, you’ve got to move guys around.”

Physical development

Strength and quickness are thought to be two of Banks’ best attributes.

Which says something when considering he did not have a high school strength and conditioning program to follow.

El Cerrito upgraded its athletic facilities during part of Banks’ time there. Athletes had little access to weights during the renovation. When training at the school, they mostly conditioned. If they wanted to lift weights, they had to create their own training regimens or hire personal trainers outside of school.

“Our weight room,” Rincon said, “what it had was two bench presses and a squat rack. That was it. That was all we had in there.”

Joined by his younger brother Frankie, Aaron trained at the local 24 Hour Fitness multiple times per week. They would arrive at 4:30 a.m.

“So we would go early in the morning and lift,” Banks said, “then go to school and then go to practice.”

Approximately three months before Banks enrolled a semester early at Notre Dame in January 2017, he began working with Marcus Malu at Malu Fitness in Antioch, Calif. Malu trains various athletes, including Alabama star running back Najee Harris and Irish defensive end Isaiah Foskey.

Malu said Banks dropped 30 pounds before he departed for South Bend.

“I told him, ‘You are going to Notre Dame. You are going to have to look the part.’ The skills were there, but his body was going to have to match the skills,” Malu said. “My thing was, I was just trying to get him lean and in shape. So that way, whatever way that they wanted to mold his body, it would be easy.”

In Malu’s program, Banks lifted weights on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while focusing on mobility and agility work on Tuesday and Thursday. He ate healthy Monday through Friday and was afforded two cheat meals on the weekend.

Then Irish director of football performance Matt Balis and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn molded Banks. He developed at such a fast pace that he stepped in as a starter during his second season following Bars’ injury.

Banks had plenty of upside and untapped potential, Malu said. He just needed a better strength training program and to start taking nutrition more seriously. What Banks has become is a product of him improving in those areas.

“He’s a gentle, angry bear,” Malu said. “The way he is with people is very gentle. The way he is with weights is very angry. It translates to the field.”

The dancin’ bear

For some reason, Banks reminds people of bears.

To Malu, Banks is a gentle, angry bear. To former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long, Banks was the “Dancin’ bear.” Long incidentally started referring to Banks as that nickname once he began to impress as Hainsey’s backup in practice two years ago.

“He loved that nickname,” Banks said. “He called me that the whole season. It just kind of stuck.”

Rincon remembers Banks flashing impressive lateral quickness when playing defensive end as a senior. That attribute figures to be a reason why Banks earned the “dancin’” part of Long’s nickname.

“He dominated,” Rincon said. “The thing with Aaron is, he came from a basketball background. So when he was with us playing football, he was extremely athletic. Moving side to side, especially with how big he is. So when he was defensive end, he caused problems. People couldn’t block him. They tried to double team. People were having trouble.”

With the versatility and quickness Banks shows at his size, he could emerge as a potential selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Banks is eligible to return to Notre Dame next season, but he declined to answer when asked of his future plans on Tuesday.

If Banks comes back for a fifth year and Eichenberg leaves, he could be an option to slide to left tackle. Or he could remain at left guard if current backup left tackle Andrew Kristofic wins the starting job.

Should Banks leave early, there will be opportunities for him to improve his draft stock this season. The best matchup to date comes this Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC) when the No. 3 Irish (4-0, 3-0 ACC) play Pittsburgh (3-3, 2-3) at Heinz Field. The Panthers boast the nation’s top run defense (61.5 yards per game) and ranks No. 2 in sacks per game (4.8).

“They are a pretty face-up defense, gritty guys,” said Banks of Pittsburgh’s defensive line. “I think that they are kind of similar to our defense in the fact that they just play really hard. So I think it could be a good test for us to come out very physical. It’s going to be a hard game. It’s going to be a fist fight.”

Notre Dame enters the game coming off a poor performance from quarterback Ian Book and his receivers.

Book completed 11-of-19 passes for only 106 yards in a 12-7 win over double-digit underdog Louisville last week. Among 71 qualifying quarterbacks, Book comes in at No. 44 in passing efficiency (133.9 rating). According to Pro Football Focus, the Irish rank last in the ACC in completions of at least 15 yards (16).

The Irish offense ultimately clinched the victory, though, with a 14-play, 57-yard drive that milked the final 7:55. Their final of three third-down conversions that possession — a 24-yard run from running back Kyren Williams — iced the game.

Williams saw penetration up the middle before bouncing to his left and running through a gaping hole created by Banks and Eichenberg.

“We ran the ball really well at the end of that game,” Banks said. “I think that’s a good thing to end with to kickstart us into the next game. But we are trying to leave that in the past and focus on Pitt.”

Senior Aaron Banks (69) is one of five offensive line starters returning for Notre Dame in 2020.

Who: No. 3 Notre Dame (4-0) vs. Pittsburgh (3-3)

Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m EDT

Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

TV: ABC

Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 10 1/2