Rush hour finally arrives for Notre Dame DL Jonathan Bonner

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jonathan Bonner chewed on the question for a moment about where his future might reside, then spit out a shrug.

The Notre Dame freshman defensive lineman is just happy to finally have a present.

The 6-foot-3, 275-pound Chesterfield, Mo., product has worked his way into the rotation as Sheldon Day’s backup at defensive tackle after starting the season as a seldom-used option behind Isaac Rochell at defensive end. And it’s not the first time he’s bounced positions.

“Wherever they put me, I’m ready to play,” Bonner said Wednesday after practice, as CFP No. 4 and AP fifth-ranked Notre Dame (9-1) prepped for a Saturday night rendezvous with Boston College (3-7) at Fenway Park.

The Eagles feature the nation’s worst offense in the FBS and best defense statistically. Freshman walk-on quarterback John Fadule is scheduled to make his second career start, a week after becoming the fourth player to start at that position this season for the Eagles.

Only Fresno State among FBS schools has run through so many starters at quarterback in 2015, one of only seven other schools to have played a walk-on this season. Syracuse is the only other one of those seven in which the walk-on has actually started.

As an added bonus for Fadule, he is playing behind one of only two offensive lines in the 128-team FBS in which all five starters did not start a game last season.

Those are details that are lost on Bonner, who was fervently recruited by BC and who is coming off a game — ND’s 28-7 subduing of Wake Forest last Saturday — in which he saw the first meaningful snaps of his career.

“He brings us a pass rush, and he's becoming a lot more comfortable working inside,” Kelly said. “He was an outside player for us, and I think it's just (defensive line) Coach (Keith) Gilmore's feeling much more comfortable with his ability to play the inside tackle techniques that are needed.”

Bonner has always been comfortable with Notre Dame, still calling it his “dream school” as he did during the recruiting process. His uncle, Dan Knott, was a reserve running back on both the 1973 and 1977 national championship teams.

His late grandfather, Elmon Hampton, attended Notre Dame and was godfather to former Irish safety Sergio Brown. And Bonner made the trip with family to attend multiple Blue-Gold spring games while growing up in the St. Louis area.

It was a trip, though, that he made to attend an ND football camp in June of 2013, months before his senior season at Parkway Central High, that changed the trajectory of his recruitment.

Michigan State, Missouri, BC and, yes, coach Bob Davie at New Mexico were among the schools that came after Bonner hard while ND’s interest was tepid. That is until Bonner attended the camp.

That kicked off a whirlwind week, in which Bonner’s performance at the camp coaxed an offer from Notre Dame days later. Hours after receiving the offer, Bonner committed.

Once on campus for summer workouts last season and August training camp, Bonner made a strong first impression on Kelly, who in turn hinted at the possibility of early playing time for him.

That was largely based on combine-style testing, at which Bonner excelled. He’s particularly proud of his 35-inch vertical leap, which had the Parkway Central basketball coaches excited until Bonner decided it wasn’t his sport.

But the complexity of ND’s defense kept Bonner’s raw ability from translating into playing time in 2014. Instead he settled onto the scout team, sharing what initially felt like misery with classmates and fellow D-linemen Jay Hayes, Pete Mokwuah and Jhonny Williams, the latter of whom has since transferred to Toledo.

“We were all moving at the same pace, and we could cheer each other on,” Bonner said. “At first going on the scout team everyone gets a little frustrated, but I think when I was on scout team, we realized you’ve got to make the most of it. So we really had fun with it.

“You are going against the (offensive) starters, so you are going to get really good doing that, whether you notice it or not, you’re going to get better.”

A turf toe injury in the spring that required surgery slowed his roll.

“It took a little to get back into it, but I do feel like I’m getting back to knocking down more doors in my game,” Bonner said. “By early August I was working back into it, and I knew I had to get better, whether it was one thing or another. Just every day I’d just focus on one thing, and it all is starting to come together.”

Daniel Cage’s concussion, which kept him out of the Wake Forest game, was a domino that opened up playing time for Bonner, but there were others.

Ends Doug Randolph and Grant Blankenship also saw playing time while the game was still in the balance on Saturday, and end Andrew Trumbetti saw his role expand.

“We've got some guys that are actually fresh that haven't played much,” Kelly said, “that, if called upon, could help us. I think they could step in and do a pretty good job.”

Fuller, Prosise make cut

Notre Dame junior wide receiver Will Fuller and senior running back C.J. Prosise had some national award love come their way on Tuesday.

Fuller is one of 15 semifinalists for the Walter Camp National Player of the Year award. That list will be cut to five finalists on Dec. 2, with the winner revealed Dec. 10.

Joining Fuller are TCU QB Trevone Boykin, Baylor receiver Corey Coleman, Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, TCU wide receiver Josh Doctson, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, Washington State QB Luke Falk, LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, Iowa defensive back Desmond King, Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, Stanford running back QB, Christian McCaffrey, Oklahoma State defensive lineman Emmanuel Ogbah, Navy QB Keenan Reynolds and Clemson QB Deshaun Watson.

Prosise is one of 12 semifinalists for the Doak Walker award, given annually to the nation’s top running back.

Three finalists for the award will be named on Nov. 24, with the winner unveiled on Dec. 10.

The other 11 semifinalists are Devontae Booker of Utah, Alex Collins of Arkansas, Dalvin Cook of Florida State, Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State, Leonard Fournette of LSU, Royce Freeman of Oregon, Derrick Henry of Alabama, Brian Hill of Wyoming, Shock Linwood of Baylor and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

ND defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner, right has bounced around to different positions for the Irish but has finally worked his way into playing time. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)