Jonathan Bonner

Bye week snapshot: Defensive Line

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Notre Dame’s 2015 plans were thrown off when Jarron Jones was injured during preseason camp. But even without a true pass rusher, Keith Gilmore’s position group has done a nice job—getting a leading man performance from Sheldon Day and precocious play from Jerry Tillery.

The Irish are giving up just over three touchdowns a game, ranked 41st in the country with 22.6 points against. While a big game against Navy pushed the rush defense down to 81st in the country, the Irish have been effective making plays behind the line of scrimmage, 35th in the country in TFLs, impressive considering they only have 11 sacks (82nd in the country).

With five games to go and the defense’s best football in front of it, let’s take a look at the defensive line.

 

MVP: Sheldon Day

While his numbers on the stat sheet still don’t match his impact on the field, Day has shown what a good decision it was to come back for his senior season by wreaking havoc in the trenches. Moving inside and out, Day has been Notre Dame’s most impactful player behind the line of scrimmage, even if he’s only managed to convert two sacks compared to his 10 quarterback hits.

Just as impressive as Day’s productivity has been his ability to stay on the field. With the depth chart shorter than ideal, the pressure has been on Day to play the lion’s share of snaps. He’s been able to do that, staying on the field for just about every play that mattered for the Irish defense, all while racking up an absurdly high PFF rating of 29.8, the third-best ranking of any defensive tackle in college football.

 

Impressive Newcomer: Jerry Tillery

Yes, you knew this was going to be Tillery. But even if his stats seem relatively pedestrian, what he’s doing is not. Tillery’s ability to hold his own in the trenches have allowed Day to play like he has this season. And the fact that Tillery is doing this all while still figuring things out—and against two option opponents—everybody who is calling him a special player knows what they’re talking about.

Interestingly enough, Tillery’s best game of the season was against Clemson. That the freshman was able to go toe to toe, especially as a stout run defender against one of the better teams in the country, was huge. Paired with run-stuffer Daniel Cage, this duo has done a tremendous job filling in for Jarron Jones.

 

Secretly Productive: Isaac Rochell (and Romeo Okwara)

Notre Dame’s defensive ends are too often discussed for what they can’t do. Yet both Rochell and Okwara are doing a nice job filling up the stat sheet, with Rochell the defensive line’s most productive tackler and Okwara once again finding a way to lead the team in sacks.

Rochell earns his living as a run defender. He hasn’t shown any productivity as a pass rusher if you’re to believe PFF’s rating system. But with 35 total tackles and 5.5 TFLs, he’s a handful for offensive tackles, and shown himself capable when he’s shifted inside.

Blink and you might have missed Okwara once again move to the top of the sack list. The senior has three sacks among his 16 total tackles, a fairly prolific number that at least helps buoy the one true deficiency of the defensive personnel. Interestingly, Okwara’s mental lapses have been what’s stood out to PFF, not his sacks. His lowest rated game of the season against USC had Okwara taking down Cody Kessler.

 

Waiting His Turn: Jay Hayes

While his Twitter outburst earned him a scolding from his head coach, the ability to save a year of Hayes’ eligibility this season would be huge. After burning a redshirt late last year when Notre Dame had zero depth, Hayes’ frustrations of not seeing the field likely came because he didn’t see the big picture.

Without Sheldon Day next season, Hayes will be a rotational player, playing opposite Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage and likely teaming with Tillery at three-technique. So credit the Irish staff for finding a good way to earn Hayes that year back, even if Notre Dame hasn’t had the best luck with five-year defensive linemen.

 

Last looks: Defensive line

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With the season right around the corner and preseason camp finished, it’s time to get our final preparations done before the games start counting and the journey begins. We spent the summer pumping out tens of thousands of words on Notre Dame’s evolving roster, so if you’re looking for 50 hours of easy reading, check out the Irish A-to-Z series.

But with cameras ready to roll on one of the most highly anticipated seasons in recent memory, let’s take our last looks at each position group.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE
Position Coach: Keith Gilmore

 

PROJECTED TWO-DEEP DEPTH CHART

DE: Romeo Okwara, Sr.
DT: Sheldon Day, Sr.
DT: Jerry Tillery, Fr.
DE: Isaac Rochell, Jr.

DE: Andrew Trumbetti, Soph.
DT: Jay Hayes, Soph.
DT: Daniel Cage, Soph.
DE: Jonathan Bonner, Soph.

Additional Depth:

DE: Grant Blankenship, Soph.
DT: Elijah Taylor, Fr.
DT: Jacob Matuska, Jr.
DE: Doug Randolph, Jr.
DT: Pete Mokwuah, Soph.
DT: Brandon Tiassum, Fr.
DT: Micah Dew-Treadway, Fr.

Key Injury:

DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.

 

LEADING MEN

Sheldon Day & Isaac Rochell. While Day is the returning captain, Rochell might be the one to watch this season, anchoring the strongside defensive end position, with the ability to slide inside if the unit needs him to do it. He played large last year when Ishaq Williams went down. Expect that to be the tip of the iceberg.

Day’s career at Notre Dame has been plagued by injuries, making it difficult for him to be as productive as many believe he can be. But the senior has had a strong fall camp, comes into the season healthy and will be more disruptive in his second season working with Brian VanGorder and paired with 4-3 expert Keith Gilmore.

 

NEED BIG SEASONS

Jerry Tillery Romeo Okwara/Andrew Trumbetti. Notre Dame’s asking a freshman to step into the starting lineup at defensive tackle. And the craziest part? Nobody seems that worried. That’s a huge compliment to Tillery and tells you quite a bit about the talent the Irish staff believes they have in their 6-foot-6.5, 305-pound defensive tackle.

The other big spot that absolutely needs to produce is the weakside defensive end. Coordinator Brian VanGorder has all sorts of ways to bring pressure. But the best way to succeed? Get Okwara or Trumbetti to get after the quarterback. Nobody expects this group to produce a double-digit sack master. But getting to that number in a platoon would be a great start.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…

Win against the run. It sounds simple, but early in the season Notre Dame’s front seven was remarkably stout against the run. Losing Jones is a difficult blow to the point of attack. But there’s a lot of depth here, and hopefully this group is up to the task, destroying blocks, getting in the backfield and letting the Irish’s fleet linebackers get to the football.

 

Combatting tempo. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but this defense feels good about their adjustments against uptempo offenses. Last year, the Irish were exploited starting with North Carolina and then against pretty much anybody else who wanted to go fast.

Sprinting massive defensive tackle Daniel Cage off the field isn’t the answer. We’ll see if they figured one out, likely in week three against Georgia Tech.

 

Stopping the option. With Georgia Tech and Navy both on the schedule, stopping the triple-option will be critical. Notre Dame’s brought in a recruited walk-on to better simulate the scout team. They’ve also added a defensive line coach that teaches the attacking style of play that Brian VanGorder prefers.

VanGorder likely went horse on media day repeating the talking points that nobody truly stops an option attack, with 350 yards on the ground an average day at the office for the Yellow Jackets and the Midshipmen. But here’s hoping that Bobby Elliott’s recon work helped the defensive staff shove a few tricks up their sleeve.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

No better time than now, Sheldon Day. Rarely has Notre Dame’s staff been bullish on a player who’s performance has been decidedly… eh. Sure injuries get in the way and a scheme shift likely disrupted some of Day’s development, but we’ve been talking about Aaron Donald when discussing Day. It’s up to the senior defender to make that comparison even in the same ballpark.

 

Is Rochell’s slide inside inevitable? I’m not saying that it is, but if Jerry Tillery gets knicked up even in the slightest, I think it has to be. Rochell played on the inside against LSU. He’ll likely do it on third downs. So while Kelly and BVG have been quick to say that Rochell isn’t going anywhere, he’ll be surrounded by defensive linemen on quite a few snaps already, so this might just be holding the cards close in the preseason, especially in a system that’ll likely be more multiple this year.

 

Can the other kids be alright? I don’t know anybody who isn’t buying into Tillery’s skill set. But if this group is going to be a CFB Playoff level unit, they’re going to need to get big contributions from some of the other first and second-year players.

Key pieces: Jay Hayes, Jonathan Bonner, Grant Blankenship and Daniel Cage. I’m almost discounting Andrew Trumbetti from this group, but he counts, too. And it’ll be interesting to see what this unit gets out of Elijah Taylor. He’s a thick, barrel-chested stocky guy who can eat some space.

These are young, developmental prospects who are desperately needed to step up and play a supporting role. If they can do it, this defense can achieve its goals.

 

 

 

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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Sophomore Jonathan Bonner‘s momentum was halted this April when he became one of the only injury casualties of the spring. A turf toe surgery kept Bonner from making a statement at strongside defensive end, a spot where the 275-pounder looked to settle in after some moves over the past calendar year.

Bonner’s short -term detour doesn’t look to be anything more than a speed bump, though if the injury robs an athletic and explosive defensive player of a key component to his skill set, it’s certainly a significant one. But after a year learning and adding to his already impressive measurables, Bonner is still on pace to be one of the defense’s most surprising newcomers.

Let’s dig into the rising sophomore.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 275 lbs.
Soph., No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner’s recruitment was just starting to take off when he pledged to Notre Dame. He had garnered a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects on campus.

Bonner was an All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. He also wore the “RKG” tag more than well, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler going viral, and an impromptu standing ovation by his high school student body one of the more memorable things assistant Bob Elliott has ever seen on the recruiting trail.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not participate, saving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Bonner’s already solidified his tweener status, starting his career as a jumbo-sized outside linebacker, and now playing strong side defensive end. But even with the injury he seems pretty on track to our projections last season, even if he didn’t use a season of eligibility.

It’s not hard to see that I’m bullish on Bonner’s future. But that’s not to say that projecting a productive career is easy. Bonner isn’t a better prospect than Anthony Rabasa, who has yet to make an impact after being evaluated and recruited by Kelly and his coaching staff. He’s not the type of recruit that Kerry Neal was either, who came into South Bend with sky high expectations and left never tallying more than two sacks in a season.

But there’s reason to believe that Bonner can be a better player than both (though the jury is still technically out on Rabasa). Bonner is a player that seems to embrace the grind, and listening to Bob Elliott talk about Bonner is the type of testimonial that gets you excited about a football player.

At defensive end, there doesn’t seem to be much certainty behind Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara. Is Bonner more ready to play than Isaac Rochell or Jacob Matuska. We’ll see.

But after exploding onto the scene in his senior season, Bonner could continue that ascent during summer workouts and work his way into some sub-packages starting this fall.

If Bonner plays behind Isaac Rochell, he’ll be competing with some young talent at defensive end. But his speed and explosiveness could also let him shift inside, a place where he could rush the passer from the interior and also mix and match up front.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s a ton to like about Bonner, but until we see him on the field, we’ll have to find out if he’s got the length to be a good defensive lineman, or the athleticism to play in space.

At his best, Bonner certainly looks like a guy on an NFL trajectory. At his worst, he could be a tweener like Justin Utupo or Anthony Rabasa, a guy who isn’t big enough to make an impact.

There’s a reason Brian Kelly has talked repeatedly about the weight room exploits of Bonner, who reportedly has a vertical leap among the best on the team, not too shabby at 275 pounds. So if you’re looking for a guy with high upside, Bonner is your man.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE

Counting down the Irish: Others receiving votes

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As we roll out this year’s rankings, it’s worth putting up a special post just for the players who just missed being ranked in our final composite ranking. With depth on this roster significant, and several unknown quantities expected to play big roles, quite a few players left off the Top 25 list will likely be a big contributor this season.

Let’s roll through the dreaded “others receiving votes” tally from this year’s proceedings.

 

2014 Irish Top 25 — Others Receiving Votes

 

Will Fuller, WR (Soph.): The sophomore receiver technically finished in a tie for 25th, but lost in a tiebreaker. Fuller has big-time potential as we saw last season when he led the Irish receiving corps with a beefy 26.7 yards per catch. He’s in the mix to start at wide receiver opposite DaVaris Daniels and will likely be more than just a human go route in 2014.

Highest Ranking: 14th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Six ballots).

— RECOUNT UPDATE — 

Fuller joins the Top 25 with the hard luck No. 26 spot now going to…

Romeo Okwara, DE (Jr.): Listed on every ballot but one, Okwara slid outside the Top 25 because he lacked any single voter projecting a high-upside season for the converted defensive end. I think that season is possible, but Okwara will need to show a nose for getting after the quarterback, something we haven’t seen in his two seasons at outside linebacker.

Highest Ranking: 20th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (One ballot).

Elijah Shumate, S (Jr.): After an injury plagued sophomore season, Shumate fell outside the Top 25 after finishing at No. 24 last year. Physically, he’s arguably Notre Dame’s second most impressive safety, behind only Max Redfield. But Shumate enters training camp behind grad student Austin Collinsworth, and in need of recapturing the swagger he showed as a slot cornerback in 2012.

Highest Ranking: 15th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Five ballots).

 

Amir Carlisle, WR (Sr.): Carlisle fell out of the rankings after finishing No. 19 last season, the product of a disappointing 2013 season that saw him start the year as the team’s No. 1 running back but finish the season out of a job — and a position. After a good spring at slot receiver, we’ll see how Carlisle rebounds at a new position.

Highest Ranking: 15th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Six ballots).

 

Austin Collinsworth, S (GS): Even though Collinsworth has a starting job heading into training camp, there’s some skepticism surrounding his overall ability. (Hence a lower rating than Shumate.) His athletic deficiencies showed when C.J. Prosise blew around him during the Blue-Gold game for a big touchdown, but Collinsworth finished the 2013 season strong, and showed an early ability to adapt in Brian VanGorder’s defense.

Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Seven ballots).

 

Nyles Morgan, LB (Frosh): The freshman linebacker had the most votes from our panelists of those missing the Top 25, but they weren’t enough to slide inside the composite ranking. Morgan will battle Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace for time at middle linebacker, and is expected to see the field from the start this year. The Chicago native was one of the top linebacker recruits in the country.

Highest Ranking: 20th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Four ballots).

 

Mike McGlinchey, OT (Soph.): Currently penciled in at right tackle, all eyes will be on McGlinchey during fall camp, as he’s the current leader for the fifth spot on the offensive line, with four other starter jobs seemingly spoken for. At almost six-foot-8, McGlinchey has the length, size and athleticism you covet at tackle. With an upside that’s nearly unmatched, we’ll see if he’s ready to contribute in 2014.

Highest Ranking: 19th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Seven ballots).

 

Honorable Mention: WR C.J. Prosise (two votes), OT Quenton Nelson (two votes), LB Ben Councell (one vote), Eilar Hardy (one vote), LB Kendall Moore (one vote), WR Torii Hunter Jr. (one vote), S Matthias Farley (one vote), LB Jonathan Bonner (one vote), DE Jhonny Williams (one vote).

 

Our 2014 selection committee:

Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals)
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune (@TJamesNDI)
Chris Hine, Chicago Tribune (@ChristopherHine)
Team OFD, One Foot Down (@OneFootDown)
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons (@HLS_NDTex)
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago (@JJStankevitz)
John Walters, Medium Happy (@JDubs88)
John Vannie, ND Nation
Keith Arnold, NBC Sports (@KeithArnold)

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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As the Irish look for a pass rush, one candidate might be coming to campus next month. St. Louis’ Jonathan Bonner, the city’s defensive player of the year, could be an immediate answer to one of Brian VanGorder’s questions.

At 6-foot-3, 245-pounds, Bonner might have been a question mark in Bob Diaco’s system, slotting in as a cat linebacker or as an undersized end. But in VanGorder’s defense, Bonner will be free to rush the passer, an edge player with a single goal: to wreak havoc in the backfield.

Let’s take a closer look at Jon Bonner:

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 245 lbs.
Freshman

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner’s offer list isn’t elite, but as Notre Dame’s coaches pointed out when recapping the recruiting class, there wasn’t a coaching staff in college football that saw Bonner at their camp and didn’t offer him. That was certainly the case for Notre Dame, who had Bonner at their June summer camp. Bonner dominated every offensive line prospect in town and left with an offer.

It didn’t take long for Bonner to say yes, pledging to safeties coach Bob Elliott just days later, even with Missouri and Michigan State also offering. And Bonner only looks better now in VanGorder’s system than the 3-4, the type of refined edge player that might be able to contribute this season if needed.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s looking more and more like the Irish found a late-bloomer in Bonner. A first-team All-Everything prospect in the state of Missouri, Bonner has a coach for a father and brings a passion to the game that’s quickly apparent when you watch his highlight tape.

At defensive end, the door is wide open for playmakers. And with the Irish coaching staff able to work eight hours a week with the roster come June, the staff will know very quickly if Bonner has what it takes to contribute.

Again, enthusiasm comes easy when it comes to incoming freshman. Finding the field is much harder. But Bonner brings a skill-set that’s needed and VanGorder has shown a willingness to embrace sub-packages and finding a way to have players take on complementary roles, something that didn’t necessarily happen with Bob Diaco.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

It’s not hard to see that I’m bullish on Bonner’s future. But that’s not to say that projecting a productive career is easy. Bonner isn’t a better prospect than Anthony Rabasa, who has yet to make an impact after being evaluated and recruited by Kelly and his coaching staff. He’s not the type of recruit that Kerry Neal was either, who came into South Bend with sky high expectations and left never tallying more than two sacks in a season.

But there’s reason to believe that Bonner can be a better player than both (though the jury is still technically out on Rabasa). Bonner is a player that seems to embrace the grind, and listening to Bob Elliott talk about Bonner is the type of testimonial that gets you excited about a football player.

At defensive end, there doesn’t seem to be much certainty behind Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara. Is Bonner more ready to play than Isaac Rochell or Jacob Matuska. We’ll see.

But after exploding onto the scene in his senior season, Bonner could continue that ascent during summer workouts and work his way into some sub-packages starting this fall.

***

The Irish A-to-Z
Josh Atkinson
Nicky Baratti
Alex Bars
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Justin Brent
Kyle Brindza

*Penalty, 15 yards. Out of alphabetical order. Still first down.