With the arrival of June Jones, Brandon Banks gets new opportunity

It is, in many ways, an astonishing admission from a professional athlete, generally pre-disposed as they are to treat both time and weakness as dangerous myths to be neither feared nor acknowledged.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats return man and receiver Brandon Banks is slowing down.

“You can’t beat age – of course I’ve lost a step,” he said this week, having been reminded recently that he’ll be turning 30-years-old shortly. “But it’s all good. Those young guys still can’t run with me. I’m still going to think I’m 21-years-old until I can’t run no more.”

Banks is now in his fifth season with the Ticats, all of them impressive in their way. He arrived late in 2013, in time to help spark the first of two Grey Cup runs. He was a CFL all-star in 2014, then the league’s Most Outstanding Special Teams player in 2015. Last year he won the East Division award, returning three kicks for touchdowns.

For a stretch, he was one of the most electrifying players in the league, a guy who seemed set to take one to the house on virtually every play. He was certainly among the most popular Ticats, a guy whose diminutive status – he’s listed, generously, at 5-foot-7, 150 pounds – made him easy to root for; a small, spectacular underdog making fools of bigger, stronger players.

But Banks has also made the wrong kind of headlines. An issue over child support payments kept him out of training camp last season – that a pool party bearing his name cropped at the very same time didn’t help matters – then a positive test for a recreational stimulant kept him out of two games. His histrionics after the game-winning touchdown was called back in the 2014 Grey Cup has been a source of fodder for opposing fans.

With declining numbers – Banks was 12th in the league in punt return average last season and he’s eighth this year – there’s been speculation about Banks’ future with the club, particularly after he took a reported pay cut before the season.

Then June Jones showed up.

Brought in to help kick start the offence then quickly promoted to head coach, Jones has made Banks a full-time receiver for the first time in his CFL career, going so far as to lessen his kick return duties.

“Speed kills and he’s very fast,” Jones said this week. “You have to get the ball into the hands of guys who can make some plays. That’s my philosophy and that’s why he’s out there more than he’s ever been because I think he’s one of the fastest guys on our team.”

In his first game in his new role in last Monday’s Labour Day win over Toronto, Banks was targeted 13 times – by far the most of any Ticat – and made six catches for 98 yards, including a beautiful touchdown grab in which he turned on the still-formidable jets and simply ran away from the defender and to the descending football.

Banks has experience in Jones’ run-and-shoot offence and so has adapted quickly.

“I’ve pretty much run it all my life, it’s the strength of my game. I ran it in college and caught 120 balls,” he said. “Me getting the ball in space, that’s all it is.”

He also has instant chemistry with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who started his first game of the season against the Argonauts. The two are friends off the field and both have been waiting for just this type of opportunity.

“He can do anything – deep balls, intermediate routes, in and out cuts – the only weakness in his game is that he’s not 6-foot-4,” Masoli said. “And he plays like he’s 6-foot-4: he’s got a big heart.”

Jones acknowledged that Banks has had a few drops this season, most notable coming at a key moment in a loss to Ottawa on Aug. 18 but chalked it up to the adjustment Banks and his teammates are making as they adapt to a new offensive system.

“He works hard: for a guy that’s been in this league a long time, every day he goes full speed on every play. He’s a true pro,” Jones said. “He’s excited about being in there because I don’t think he’s been a regular in his career.

Banks now has the chance to re-invent himself as a full-time receiver – he’s never had more than 42 catches in a season – something that’s likely to prolong his career. Time may have robbed him of that step but it’s also brought him something just as valuable: opportunity.