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Pressure? What Pressure?

He’s following in the steps of arguably USF’s best ever player. His first season as a starter coincides with USF’s step up to Conference USA play. His first game is a road trip to football powerhouse Alabama in front of an anticipated 80,000 baying for blood – mostly his. Oh, and it’s live on ESPN.

At Alabama Saturday, Ronnie Banks, after three seasons understudying Marquel Blackwell, will become only the third full-time starting quarterback in USF’s brief football history. While the game is a landmark in the progress of USF’s football program, its first as a fully-fledged C-USA member and its debut on ESPN, for Banks, success lies in relegating the occasion to just another game. Speaking two weeks prior to the start of the season and with his throwing arm wrapped in ice after a 90-degree training session, Banks said he knows he has to keep the game in perspective.

“I have to let the game take care of itself. If I let the game take over me, I’ll never be successful,” Banks said. “I’m going to be nervous, but that’s OK. When the play snaps, you have to be ready and I guarantee you, I will be ready.”

But that’s not to say that Banks is completely immune to pressure. The New Orleans-born QB is aware of the football program’s need to maintain its forward momentum and of the ambition born from last season’s 4-0 record against C-USA opponents.

“Pressure is a part of the (QB) position. The pressure is to win,” he said. “In the last couple of seasons we’ve set high standards at this university. We’re expecting to finish top three. I think that’s pressure in itself.”

Succeeding a USF legend also brings its own problems. The success and durability of Blackwell limited Banks’ opportunities on the field. USF’s new QB has only 13 appearances and 40 pass attempts to show for his three-year apprenticeship. At USF’s media day, Aug 6, head coach Jim Leavitt downplayed Banks’ relative inexperience.

“If I wasn’t sure he can do it, I’d tell you we have a problem at quarterback,” Leavitt said. “But I have great faith in Ronnie Banks.”

Blackwell may have deprived Banks of time on the field, but off the field the junior says he has benefited from advice and encouragement from his predecessor who, while pursuing the third-string QB spot at the New York Jets, has made time to keep in touch with USF’s new starter. Banks, however, recognizes that comparisons between Blackwell and himself are inevitable.

“Marquel did some great things here and that’s pressure. Every year at USF we want to set a standard, we want to set bars. I have to win and I want to do just as good, maybe better, than Marquel,” Banks said.

Helping Banks to deal with the extra pressure of starting has been one of the responsibilities of pass-game coordinator and quarterback coach Rod Smith. The former Clemson and West Virginia assistant, who sees Banks as an old head on young shoulders, has no doubts that Banks is ready to step up.

“I got all the confidence in the world in Ronnie. I think he will handle the pressure that ‘s been thrown at him,” Smith said. “He’s been around. He’s a mature kid. This is his time.”

Bank’s path to starting QB has been anything but smooth. As a red-shirt freshman, knowing he was ineligible, Banks, by his own admission, “didn’t know what it took to be a starting QB.”

“When he was younger he knew he wasn’t gong to play and I don’t think he put in the effort,” Smith said. “You have to prepare yourself as a starter. Ronnie wasn’t doing that early. As he matured, the light just clicked in. If something had happened to Marquel, he was ready to play.”

But even as recently as 12 months ago, Banks was still vying for the number two spot with David Mullins. When Blackwell was rested late in USF’s first game against Florida Atlantic, it was Mullins who received the call. Banks’ redemption came in, of all places, the chastening back-to-back defeats at Arkansas and Oklahoma.

At Arkansas, with the Bulls humbled to a 42-0 deficit and staring at its first-ever shut out, Banks orchestrated a 10-play 65-yard drive to allow Santiago Gramatica to kick the Bulls’ only points. Against the Sooners, Banks was even more impressive, needing just seven attempts to notch his first 100-yard game as he twice led USF down the field for touchdowns. The points may have been mere consolation, but Banks’ leadership and ability to perform in a hostile atmosphere dispelled any doubts his coaches held and cemented his position as this season’s starter.

“It’s always important when your players can go out and make an impact on the game,” Smith said. “It wasn’t that we scored but that he went out and ran the offense.”

His performances in those two games were something of a watershed for Banks also.

“I knew last year I had to take care of business so I could put myself in this position,” he said. “Games like Oklahoma and Arkansas, those are big games where I felt if I get in the game, I need to show everybody I can play. I played well and that clinched it. It gave me more confidence myself coming into this year.”

By the time of the spring game in April, Banks was head and shoulders above his competitors for the starting spot with speculation switching to whether USF had a viable backup. The 21-year-old, who routinely follows daily practice with four to five hours of watching game film, still feels a debt to his coaches and his teammates and admits there are still some people he has to win over.

“These coaches work hard, these teammates work hard. I owe that to them. I owe it to Marquel, to everybody, to every alumni that’s played football here,” Banks said. “I have something to prove to all of them.”

In particular, Banks will be motivated to vindicate his head coach whom he credits with helping him through his darkest days at USF.

“Sometimes he wanted to ask me to transfer because he thought I wasn’t working hard,” Banks said. “I owe it to him. He’s dedicated all his time to me and gave me advice when I needed it. (He) stayed hard on me when he needed to be hard.”

Proving himself is becoming a familiar theme for Banks. At Lawless High School in New Orleans, Banks had just his senior year to showcase his abilities to interested colleges. He threw for more than 1,800 yards, including 18 TDs. According to his high-school coach John Glapion, that total would have been closer to 4,000 yards if his receivers had hung onto the passes Banks hit them with. USF’s current receiving corps is far more to Banks’ liking.

“Every pass that I threw my senior year had to be on the money or else nobody was going to catch it,” Banks said. “(At USF,) I’m here with guys that can make plays left or right. All I have to do is get the ball there and they’re going to catch it,” he said.

As one of only four USF players from outside of Florida, Banks’ ties with his coaching staff extend beyond football. His coaches and close family in New Orleans and Atlanta provide the base Banks says he needs to allow him to concentrate on football.

“I’ve a great family. They’re there for me every time I need them,” he said. “Anytime I’m down, I can always call and lean on them. They’re far away, but they’re always a phone call away.”

As for being live on ESPN, Banks said he is decidedly unimpressed. But being on national television, he admitted, does have some fringe benefits.

“I’m glad my folks and everybody that loves me and cares about me will be able to watch the game. That’s the big thing. I’m not worried about celebrity status,” Banks said.