Notre Dame left guard Aaron Banks declares for the NFL Draft

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame left guard Aaron Banks declared for the NFL Draft, announcing the news via social media on Sunday.

By declaring, Banks declined his option to return as a fifth-year graduate senior.

Rising senior center Jarrett Patterson is the only starter from the group expected to come back to Notre Dame next season. Left tackle Liam Eichenberg, right guard Tommy Kraemer, Banks and right tackle Robert Hainsey all could be selected in the draft, which is scheduled to begin on April 29 in Cleveland.

Last week, Banks was named first-team All-ACC and first-team All-America by the Associated Press and the American Football Coaches Association. Banks will earn consensus All-America honors if he receives first-team status on the Walter Camp team on Thursday.

Pro Football Focus also recognized Banks as a first-team All-American. The Sporting News offered Banks second-team distinction for its All-America group.

“Notre Dame has the clear-cut best offensive line in the country, and Banks is a key cog in that unit,” PFF’s Anthony Treash wrote last month. “He was the only Power 5 left guard who earned a pass- and run-block grade above 80.0 this year.

“Banks came in at No. 6 among all FBS left guards in PFF pass-blocking grade. That sounds great as is, but it’s even more impressive when you consider the fact that he played the fourth-most true pass sets among players at the position.”

Banks joined the Irish as a four-star star recruit in the 2017 class. The El Cerrito (Calif.) High product did not see game action and redshirted in year one. He played in all 13 games the following year as a sophomore.

In that 2018 season, Banks started in the final six games. He replaced Alex Bars after the multi-year starter suffered a season-ending knee injury. Banks then made 31 consecutive starts from Navy in 2018 until the end of his collegiate career.

The 6-foot-6, 330-pound Banks could have slid to left tackle and improved his draft stock next season. But he instead will look to capitalize from his impressive senior campaign.

“If he were to come out now, he’s a day-three (rounds 4-7) pick, Banks is,” ESPN NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay said last week on the Pod of Gold Podcast. “Patterson, I’m under the strong impression that he’s coming back next year. I haven’t even gone down that route.

“But for Banks, improving his feet a little bit and getting a chance to play on the outside might be the best for him. Eichenberg is going to be a day-three pick. Kraemer and Hainsey, if they are not day-three picks, they are going to be in camp as a priority free agent type player.

“They’ve all had really good years. And the best part from watching them is that they play so well together. The combination blocks. The pass protection. Communicating with one another.

“This group, Texas A&M and Alabama are in my opinion the best offensive lines that at least I’ve studied all season long.”

Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Alabama boasted the three offensive lines that were named as finalists for the Joe Moore Award this season. The Irish offensive line could look a lot different next season if Patterson is the only returning starter, as expected.

Eichenberg, Kraemer and Hainsey were initially set to expire their eligibility after this season. But the NCAA implemented a new rule in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic stipulating that this season does not count as a year of eligibility.

Hainsey publicly indicated he will not return next season. Irish quarterback Ian Book and leading wide receiver Javon McKinley also made known via social media on Sunday that they will not return. The Tribune confirmed on Saturday that nose guard Kurt Hinish will take advantage of the rule and come back for a fifth season. Eichenberg and Kraemer have yet to announce their plans.

Whether Patterson would stay at center or slide to a different position remains unclear. He moved to center last season after being recruited and beginning his collegiate career at offensive tackle. Patterson missed the final five games of this season after suffering a left foot injury.

Senior Josh Lugg (eight career starts) and sophomore Zeke Correll (two career starts) would be the only other returning players beyond Patterson who have made multiple starts. They split duties at center after Patterson was sidelined.

The multi-faceted Lugg could play all five positions on the offensive line. He started the last five games at right tackle in 2019 after Hainsey suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Lugg started three games at center this season.

Correll started at center against North Carolina but went down with an ankle injury. Lugg replaced Correll before the latter returned in the 31-14 loss to Alabama in the Rose Bowl semifinal last Friday. Correll could play center and guard.

Sophomores Andrew Kristofic and Quinn Carroll and freshmen Tosh Baker and Michael Carmody are the other returning offensive tackles. The following interior offensive linemen are eligible to come back to the Irish next season: senior Dillan Gibbons, junior John Dirksen and sophomore Hunter Spears.

The Irish signed five offensive linemen via the 2021 recruiting class during the three-day signing period last month. Four-star recruits in offensive tackle Blake Fisher and offensive guard Rocco Spindler were among them and plan to enroll at Notre Dame a semester early in February.

Notre Dame right tackle Robert Hainsey hugs teammate and left guard Aaron Banks on the field after the College Football Playoff semifinal loss on Friday.