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