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WVU football: Banks back in natural position for Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- His redshirt junior season will begin in the fall. Because of a year of prep school, he is already 22 years old.

Yet forgive West Virginia's Ishmael Banks if he feels a little like a freshman. Never mind he played in all 13 games in 2011 and he was a starter in four of the 11 games he played last season.

Banks, from Richmond, Va., by way of a year at Virginia's Hargrave Military Academy, has never been in the role he's aiming at during this round of spring football.

"I feel like if I wouldn't have went through what I went through, I wouldn't be working as hard as I am now and I wouldn't be as determined as I am now or as focused as I am now," Banks said.

Banks is one of the seven healthy cornerbacks working for the first time with new cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell.

There are no starters yet, not just because WVU has only had five of the 14 workouts before the April 20 Gold-Blue Game, but because Mitchell doesn't know what he'll do, let alone who he'll ask to do it.

The hardest thing, he said, is finding four cornerbacks who can play man-to-man, yet that's important. If he has cornerbacks who can play man-to-man, then there can be more bodies and more pressure up front and fewer bodies and fewer safety nets in the secondary.

If Mitchell has those man-to-man cornerbacks, he can assign one to the left side and one to the right side, which would let them play faster or move quickly on defense and keep pace with the up-tempo offenses.

Yet if he can only find a cornerback to play the more open field side and one to play the narrower boundary side, the Mountaineers will have to find the field and the boundary before every snap, which slows them down and puts them at a disadvantage.

Maybe Mitchell finds his cornerbacks are better off playing zone defense to complement other parts of the defense. It's all undetermined right now.

"It's all predicated on what your players can do," he said. "I think everything that you run schematically is based on your roster. You can have a philosophy for how you want to get things done, but you can only do as much as your talent can handle."

This is what makes Banks so interesting, so potentially valuable and perhaps so ready to benefit.

It's not that, at 6 feet tall and 190 pounds, Banks is noted for one skill or various skills, but that he's been trusted to play multiple positions.

"I'm a defensive back," he said. "I feel like I'm a cornerback, because that's what I've always done, but I can play safety, too. I can cover and a safety has got to be a little bigger. That's what a defensive back has to do."

That's what Banks has done. During his redshirt freshman season, Banks was a third-down and pass-situation cornerback who played around 100 snaps. The way those Mountaineers played pass defense often asked Banks to play like a cornerback, but back where a safety stood.

Last year, he figured his role would evolve into a more specialized role as a cornerback.

He was seeing playing time early before an injury to safety Travis Bell reconfigured the defensive backfield. Bell was a specialist who played on third downs and in pass packages and WVU didn't have enough safeties to allow one to replace Bell.

So the coaches decided to move Banks.

"It caught me off guard," he said. "That's what I'm there for. I'm supposed to be ready at all times for any problems. But I didn't prepare like I should have in the offseason."

Banks didn't like the way he played, not as it was happening and not now as he looks back at the few games he played safety. There's a level of pride that compels him to advertise, "That was not me."

"I was playing corner and getting in the rotation a lot and then it was, 'We're going to move you to safety,' " Banks said. "That was like, 'Oh, man, that's not me. I don't play safety. I want to play corner.'

"I don't feel like I accepted my role - I know I didn't accept the role. I didn't. I didn't pursue it like it was my job. I feel like if it was corner they were asking me to play, I would have taken that on."

Banks was moved back to cornerback when things became really messy in WVU's secondary. He started against TCU, the same game the Mountaineers benched safety Darwin Cook. Banks started the next three games - and may have started the final two of the season after those four - but he missed both after a low block sidelined him early in the win at Iowa State.

He wound up making 20 tackles as one of the five players to start at cornerback last season, but he was far from perfect.

"A lot of messed-up calls and giving up big plays when we needed stops," he said.

Banks has worried enough about wasted time, though, after the trip he's made to this spring at WVU. Banks "didn't have great grades, didn't take my classes serious enough" when he was playing at Varina High and he met reality in the form of uniforms and early morning marching in military school.

After four interceptions and a major realization, Banks was ranked the No. 3 prep school cornerback by and picked WVU over interest from Western Kentucky, Penn State and Michigan State.

"It played a big role in coming in and being ready and knowing what to do," he said. "Sometimes you get distracted at times, but if you learn to do things right it'll help you as a person. It's kind of a relief knowing you did all that and knowing all the hard work pays off."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. His blog is at


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