“Banks was so far down the depth chart, we didn’t think he would be in the mix,” Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken said.
That explains why Banks does not appear in the profile pages of the Eagles football media guide. His name barely made it onto the roster. If you click on it from the program’s Web site, it only links to a photo of him in a jacket and tie.
His head coach’s endorsement of 5-foot-9, 191-pound Banks’ gifts sets the bar a little low.
“He’s not fast, he doesn’t have great feet, he’s just a tough kid who works hard,” Monken said a month ago. “He came from the bottom.”
Yet here Banks is, the primary backup to leading B-back Dominique Swope as the Eagles head to Fargo, N.D., on Friday night to face reigning national champs North Dakota State in the semifinals of the playoffs for the division formerly known as I-AA. He ranks sixth on the top rushing team in the nation with 439 yards on 71 carries.
“It’s just been a dream come true really,” Banks said. “Putting in hard work every season and finally getting a chance to be on this team and contribute has just been great. This definitely makes it all worthwhile to be out there on Saturdays.”
Banks came to Georgia Southern in 2009 as a preferred walk-on. After starring in virtually every position on the field at Augusta Christian – receiver, quarterback, running back, defensive back, kick returner – the only scholarship offer he got was for academics at Campbell.
But he headed to Statesboro, Ga., following the path of his older brother, Lee. He spent a redshirt season on the scout team before tearing up his knee in spring practice. Nearly seven months of rehabilitation got him back to the scout team before he reinjured the knee before preseason camp in 2011.
Despite all of the obstacles and limited options, Banks kept putting on the pads and coming back.
“There’s always a little thought in the back of your mind, ‘Is it worth it?’ ” he said. “But I’ve always decided to stick with the love of my life and keep playing football. Being on the scout team is tough. You really don’t get any recognition. But I love all the guys on the team and would pretty much do anything for them. It’s all about the brotherhood down here.”
That’s what Monken admires most about Banks.
“He’s like so many guys who have played here at Georgia Southern – walked on just in the hopes of being able to contribute to the program,” Monken said. “I was here as an assistant to Paul Johnson and we had kids like that here. Very unselfish, love the team and are willing to do what they can to help the team win. William is cut from the same mold.”
With Robert Brown moving to A-back, Banks beat out scholarship players Seon Jones and Ean Days for the backup role at B-back. Yet in six of the first seven games of 2012, Banks had only three total carries. In second-half duty he rushed for 101 of the Eagles’ 614 yards in a blowout at Western Carolina in October, but otherwise remained relatively buried.
So when Banks trotted onto the field in front of 22,000 fans at Paulson Stadium as a starter for the No. 1 Eagles against Southern Conference rival Appalachian State on Nov. 3, he definitely needed an introduction. Unfortunately, the announcer identified him as leading rusher Swope, who was sitting out his second consecutive game with a concussion.
By halftime, however, everyone knew who Banks was. He had 109 of his career-high 129 yards and all three touchdowns (4, 20 and 36 yards) for the Eagles in the first half. He spent intermission getting IV fluids to battle cramps.
“Banks has had to step in and start; he’s really done a nice job for us,” Monken said. “I’m proud of him.”
Banks hardly intimidates opponents with his skill set in the triple option. Even he laughs when you ask about his size and speed.
“They might not really think too much about me when I get into the game,” he said. “I just try to make the most of my opportunities. If I get good blocks up front and can get past those big guys, I can hopefully make somebody miss or bounce off a few tackles.”
The Eagles called on Banks again in a key moment of last week’s quarterfinal against Old Dominion. Trailing by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Banks went in when Swope went out with a bruised thigh. He carried five times for 36 yards in a 79-yard drive, including a 17-yarder to the Old Dominion 5 that set up quarterback Jerick McKinnon’s game-tying score with 5:32 remaining.
Swope returned on the next possession and scored the go-ahead touchdown as the Eagles won 49-35 to advance to a third consecutive national semifinal.
“It just gives me more confidence to know they have confidence in me to go out there in key situations like that and let me run the ball,” Banks said.
Now the Eagles face a powerful North Dakota State team that hasn’t given up an offensive touchdown in 10 quarters, including to fellow triple-option program Wofford last week.
For Banks, who hasn’t been a part of the past two semifinal appearances, this is the culmination of his dream.
“It’s the biggest game of my life,” he said. “We played in a few state championship games when I was in high school, but being on the national stage like this and all the implications and representing Georgia Southern University is just an honor.”
After all Banks has been through to get here, that’s no understatement.