James Banks Is No Jasper Sanks

In the aftermath of bitter defeat few things look as good as they do in the invigorating light of victory. Winning accentuates the positives while athletic achievements under its perview take on a luminous glow that glosses over the invariable imperfections.

So it is that the debut of true freshman quarterback James Banks Jr., while eye-opening, is not viewed in its complete scope or apprecitated for its sheer brilliance.

Perhaps the closest comparison to Banks performance is Casey Clausen's starting debut against Alabama in 2000, when the true freshman engineered a 20-10 victory to spark a six game winning streak that saved a season headed south faster than a snow goose in November.

The major differences are that Clausen started, while Banks entered the game on the Vols third possession. Clausen had played in three prior games and Banks had only played one, and that was at wide receiver. Clausen was playing at home against an Alabama team that was in the death throes of Mike DuBose's reign, while Banks was playing in hostile territory against the undefeated and sixth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.

Although Banks didn't direct the Vols to a win, you can't help but to wonder what he might have done with the three possessions in which C.J. Leak took snaps and netted no first downs. By the fourth quarter, Banks was hotter than Arizona asphalt and Georgia1s defense was just as tarred from chasing the quicksilver QB.

When the stats were totaled, Banks' performance was quantified 10-of-15 for 168 yards and one touchdown, plus 35 yards rushing in 14 carries including sacks. That1s a 66.6 percent completion rate with an average of nearly 17 yards per completion.

Impressive though those numbers are, they don't begin to reveal the intangibles or the instinctive essence of Bank's superlative play. The first thing you noticed was his poise, confidence and commanding presence. We later learned that he was nervous and didn't know some of the plays he was asked to run, which just makes what he accomplished that much more remarkable.

These were some of the same things that jumped out on film from Banks' high school days at Indianapolis Ben Davis High School, which he led to a 42-2 record in three years as a starter and two Indiana state championships.

Of course, he also had superb size and speed, but it was his sixth sense in the pocket and his abilty to escape pressure that stood out above his other talents. Those are the intangibles you can't qualify with a tape measure or a stop watch. They are attributes that can't be acquired by experience, application, instruction or osmosis. They are the type of talents that haven't been seen at Tennessee since Condredge Holloway arrived on the scene 30 years ago.

Comparisons to Tee Martin don't do Banks justice. Martin was a running threat with good linear speed, but he wasn't nearly as fast as Banks (4.71 to 4.50) nor did he scramble. That's a lost art in an era of timing offenses based on the three- five- and seven-step drop. It's also an invaluable weapon for an offense because it buys time for receivers to break open and its drains the legs of pass rushers who are turned into chasers. It's the skill that makes Arkansas' Matt Jones so dangerous and he's not the passer that Banks is.

Many questioned whether Banks was a creation of sports writers and recruiting analysts when he got off to a slow start at Tennessee during the preseason. Former phenoms such as Georgia running back Jasper Sanks came to mind as an overstated prospect that never realized stardom. This writer, who built Banks up as much if not more than anyone, was a little surprised by his initial showing but also knew that competition was the catalyst that would fuel his high-octane game.

In addition to his ability to avoid pressure, Banks quickly found his passing touch and made a variety of throws from the perfectly lofted screen to Derrick Tinsley, to the deep crossing route to Tony Brown, to the sideline comeback that hit Leonard Scott between the 2 and 6 before falling to the ground. In the fourth quarter, he connected 6-of-6 passes and marched the Vols to a pair of quick touchdowns to get them back in the game. When things appeared most bleak for the Vols, Banks was his most brilliant and he lifted the team on his back. It1s that ability to raise the level of his game as well as the spirit and performance of his team that makes him truly special.

At Ben Davis High School, Banks proved that ability translated to whatever position he played. For example: he played defense (corner) for the first time as a senior and intercepted eight passes returning three for touchdowns while averaging 48.3 yards per return. He once punted a ball 83 yards and averaged better than 39 yards for his career. He returned numerous punts and kickoffs for touchdowns and once retrieved a high snap that sailed over his head from punt formation and ran it 89 yards for a touchdown. Question: Have you ever heard of a punter doing that? A fake punt run or pass, yes. But this was a bad snap with no blocking scheme and all his momentum going in the opposite direction. Now for the kicker (no punt intended), Banks' TD tied a playoff game, 14-14, with his team facing elimination in the second half.

Banks was also an all-state basketball player and sprinter in high school, and his father says baseball is his son's best sport, but he doesn't like it.

This writer regarded Tennessee's decision to play Banks at wide receiver as a sound one, simply because he can help the team more as a second or third wide receiver than he can as a third-string quarterback.

But the words of Banks' high school head football coach Dick Dullaghan, come to mind when projecting the freshman1s future. By the way, Dullaghan is a 36-year coaching veteran who has compiled a 289-53 record coming into the 2002 season. He spent four years on Jim Young1s coaching staff at Army and Purdue. He coached All-American quarterback Mark Hermann and Baltimore Ravens safety Corey Harris on his high school teams and his summer football camp draws over 2,500 participants from the midwest every year. Among those that have attended are Rick Meyer, Jeff George, Rod Woodson and Rex Grossman.

Despite this outstanding football background, Dullaghan didn't hesitate to say: "I've been coaching for 36 years, James Banks is the best high school football player I've ever seen period."

When asked what Banks' best position in college might be? Dullaghan insisted he could excel wherever you needed him a cover corner, a big-play receiver, a centerfielder in the secondary or a return specialist.

"If it was me, I'd play him at quarterback," Dullaghan insisted. "He's a great playmaker and you want to put the ball in his hands as much as possible."

Those are words worth remembering when Coach Phillip Fulmer ponders how to use Banks this season. Whether you want a change of pace, or to run an option package, or to buy some time, or wear down a defense or merely enjoy a little magic just put James Banks in the drivers seat and open the throttle.

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