March 11, 2023

Vanstone: Banks looks for breakthrough w/ Riders

Stefen Banks is a defensive end with a new beginning.

After being utilized as part of a rotation with the Calgary Stampeders over the past two CFL seasons, Banks is excited about becoming an every-down factor with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“It’s something that I’ve been training for,” the six-foot-one, 260-pounder said this week from his hometown of Columbus, OH. “It’s something that I feel that I can do big things with. I feel like I can make people realize that this is the position I should be in.”

Banks conveyed that impression in just his fourth game of Canadian professional football, registering three sacks and seven defensive tackles against the Edmonton Elks on Sept. 11, 2021.

“It wasn’t even like a message, really,” he recalled. “It was just a matter of being able to play and to show that I can play and contribute towards helping the team win.”

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Banks will join a Riders defensive line that features Micah Johnson, Anthony Lanier II and Pete Robertson (The Canadian Press)

That mission was accomplished as Calgary won 32-16 at Commonwealth Stadium. Shortly after that three-sack breakout game, Banks was named a CFL Top Performer of the Week.

Over the course of Banks’ introductory CFL season, he had four sacks and 21 defensive tackles in 10 games.

He followed up in 2022 with four sacks, 15 defensive tackles and one forced fumble in 13 regular-season games — the most recent of which was a two-sack outing in a 36-10 victory over the visiting Roughriders on Oct. 29.

In the wake of a 6-12 season, the Roughriders have bolstered the roster at several key positions. In addition to signing Banks, the Green and White has added quarterback Trevor Harris, receivers Jake Wieneke, Derel Walker, Juwan Brescacin and Shawn Bane Jr., offensive linemen Peter Godber and Philip Blake and defensive tackle Micah Johnson.

Johnson, Banks, defensive tackle Anthony Lanier II and defensive end Pete Robertson should form a formidable front four.

“Stefen brings great energy and effort on every play,” Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson said. “He is relentless as a pass rusher and we think his best days are ahead of him as he is young and new to the CFL.

“He is physical against the run and is also able to contribute on special teams.”

Banks is being counted on to fill a void that was created by the departure of defensive end A.C. Leonard.

Leonard, who had a league-high 11 sacks in 11 games in 2021, endured an injury-plagued 2022 campaign in which he had three sacks in 13 contests.

Shortly after being released by Saskatchewan in late January, Leonard resurfaced with Edmonton.

The signing of Banks was announced on Feb. 14 — the opening day of the CFL’s free-agency period.

What does he bring?

Banks will have an opportunity for an increased role on the Riders’ d-line this season (The Canadian Press)

“A spark,” replied Banks, who turned 26 last Saturday. “I feel like I can be solid and I can be counted on to be where I need to be when I need to be there and make a play when it needs to be made.”

That has been his modus operandi since he starred at Beechcroft High School in Columbus. As a senior, he was a first-team all-state selection.

“Football didn’t really intrigue me until I got into high school,” noted Banks, who took up the sport when he was in grade six and was initially an offensive player.

“As soon as I played defence, I realized, ‘This is something I can get into and really have fun with.’ I loved the fast pace of it and being able to hit somebody at times and get all that anger out.

“It’s a fun game as well. I’m blessed with the opportunity to play a childhood game and make a living at it.”

Before football became a vocation, though, Banks excelled collegiately in Georgia with the Savannah State Tigers from 2015 to 2018.

Over 41 NCAA games, he compiled 226 defensive tackles, 51.5 tackles for a loss, 24.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, six pass breakups and two interceptions.

He was a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference all-star in each of his final three seasons at Savannah State. He also earned FCS All-American honours in 2017 after producing 10 sacks in 11 games.

Post-university, Banks attended a mini-camp with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in 2019 before signing with Calgary the following year — only to have the 2020 CFL season cancelled due to COVID-19.

Banks was introduced to Mosaic Stadium on Oct. 22 of last year, when the Stampeders won 32-21 in Regina. But it wasn’t just the outcome that left an impression.

“The fans, the atmosphere,” Banks recalled. “When I went to the games (in Saskatchewan), everything had my heart beating fast. I enjoyed the fans and what they brought to the game.

“It’s amazing. I understand that football is very big for the fans up there, so it’s an honour to be able to play for them.”

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