Did any football player in North Jersey have bigger shoes to fill this season than Keon Banks? The junior from Kearny was tabbed by St. Mary to replace the graduated Jonathan Diaz, the Gaels’ workhorse running back last season. All Diaz did was earn a spot on the All-North Jersey team by rushing for 1,954 yards and a North Jersey-best 34 touchdowns for the Non-Public Group 1 finalists.
“There’s definitely been pressure,” Banks said before Thursday’s practice at Tamblyn Field. “I knew I had to bring it every practice, and I think I earned my spot.
“It has been a great opportunity, and I like the feeling that comes with that opportunity. I felt all along like I’d be able to do it.”
The 5-foot-6, 170-pounder has stepped up as one of the most exciting players in the NJIC, scoring nine touchdowns in his first three games as a feature back for a team that hasn’t lost the beat on offense. His success comes as no surprise to coach Mike Sheridan, who tabbed Banks as a potential impact player even before his sophomore season.
“You could see the talent,” Sheridan said. “We knew what he was capable of. He made our defense better last season by his work on the scout team.”
The Gaels (2-1) have done a nice job shaking off a 31-28 opening day loss to Cresskill and have scored 98 unanswered points in their past two games. St. Mary has an interesting test on tap Saturday when it hosts resurgent Queen of Peace (2-1) in a game that will have a major impact on the Non-Public Group 1 playoff race.
The game also has an interesting subplot because Banks and QP’s Kevin Momnohin have been two of the most dynamic running backs in North Jersey through the first three weeks. Momnohin has 11 touchdowns this season, so the spotlight will definitely be on the ground games.
Banks carried 88 times for 635 yards and six touchdowns as Diaz’s understudy last season, and he said he learned a lot by watching and talking with his mentor. Banks said he has become a more patient runner this season, letting the line set the pace and following blocks.
“He’s short, so you don’t see him behind the big bodies of the blockers,” Sheridan said. “He’s put together. He’s like a rubber ball, just bouncing off of you.
“You don’t see him, and then, all of a sudden, he pops out.”
Banks ran for three touchdowns and returned a punt 40 yards for a score in last week’s 58-0 win over Wood-Ridge. He scored three touchdowns against Emerson and two in the loss to Cresskill.
Banks isn’t the only new face in an offense that was hit hard by graduation, and he said that the loss to the Cougars has already been turned into a plus.
“I love this team,” Banks said. “Right now, we have a lot of young kids, but we have a lot of energy, a lot of heart.
“That loss helped us a lot. It showed the things we needed to work on, and we came back and worked on that. I know that I don’t want to have that feeling again.”
Banks, who also plays cornerback, said he is comfortable as the numbers say he is in his new role. He’s a quiet young man, but he believes that what he does on the field shows leadership.
“Every time I get the ball, I try hard to make something happen,” Banks said. “I give 110 percent from the first quarter through the fourth quarter, and I think my teammates see that.”