Rising Star: Joey Banks emerges as a defensive playmaker

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Six-year-old Joey Banks had a short list of fears.

Spiders, contact and football.

There was just something about the sport — the ferocity, the bruteness — that gave him pause.

“I hated contact,” Banks said. “I didn’t like to get hit. I cried every time I got hit.”

Banks’ fears began to fade as his love of the sport grew. Today he takes hits each game as the Bulls’ starting safety. After growing up in Sacramento, CA, he attended Sacramento State University to play football but transferred to the City College of San Francisco after disagreements with Sacramento’s coaching staff. In San Francisco, Banks started getting looks from Division-I programs, including UB. Now, UB coaches and teammates are quick to applaud the star defender, who led his team with six solo tackles and an interception in a win against Temple Saturday.

Their praise: Banks is one of the toughest and most feared players on the team.

“He’s the most physical guy out there right now,” UB Associate Head Coach Rob Ianello said. “He’s one heck of a tackler. He’s really developed in his two years into a real presence back there at safety.”

But the seeds of Banks’ love for football were planted long before he stepped onto the field at UB Stadium. Growing up, his father Adam Banks, a former collegiate wrestler at California State University, Chico, challenged Banks to put his athleticism to use on the wrestling mat.

He listened and became a dominant wrestler. In his senior year of high school, Banks won the 195-pound Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Championship. A March 2014 SportStars Magazine article lauds him for his brute strength and surprising quickness.

And in Sacramento, Banks was surrounded by some of the best youth football talent in the country. 

He was never one to shy away from a challenge, embracing the opportunity to step beyond the mat.

However, Banks had a difficult decision to make when he left high school. Ultimately, he felt his heart was on the turf, not on the mat.

But he never expected this decision to bring him all the way to Buffalo.

“Something in my head was telling me I was going to end up somewhere I was not expecting,” Banks said.

So when the Bulls made Banks an offer, he contacted a fellow City College of San Francisco alum for advice. Khalil Hodge was a starting middle linebacker for Buffalo when Banks reached out, asking him about UB.

“[Hodge] told me about how Buffalo was, what to expect and the opportunity that Buffalo presents,” Banks said. “I took full advantage of that and came here.”

After coming to UB, Banks experienced a steep learning curve in the city and on the field. Banks attributed the difference to a focus on playing time at CCSF, whereas at UB practices are more structured.

Banks caught on pretty quickly.

After starting nine games at safety for Buffalo in 2018, Banks has transitioned into his full-time starting role this season.

And he feels great about his efforts so far.

“It’s night and day from last year to this year,” he said. “I’m so much more locked in and focused this year. I have so much more of an understanding of the way they do things. I’m so much more comfortable and confident in the way I play.”

His coaches agree.

“From listening to him and seeing him play, Joey has really come a good distance with knowing the defense,” Ianello said. “He understands the defense, what we’re trying to do, and how he can have a great leadership role. He’s a real presence back there.”

On Sept. 7, Banks broke out against Penn State in front of 104,000 fans at Beaver Stadium and millions more on television. He had a season-high nine tackles and one sack.

He was named the MAC East Division Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.

Banks said he approached the game like any other and was grateful to be instrumental in keeping the game close during the first half.

“I told my teammates, ‘you have to treat it as just another game.’ They’re the same age as us, they’re not superheroes,” Banks said. “They may have a bigger stadium and wear different colors, but the field is the same size.”

The Bulls have lost two of their last three games, but as Bulls’ defensive leader, Banks remains optimistic.

“Honestly, we’re probably the best defense in the conference, the best team in the conference,” Banks said. “I have no question about that. We’re our biggest competition. When we’re not clicking on all cylinders, we’re going to be in trouble.”

Once fearful of the field, Banks is now the leader of a defense that has allowed only 322 yards per game, ranking No. 37 in Division I-A. 

Sports desk can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com.