Healthy Jonathan Bonner better armed for Notre Dame's nose guard role
Jonathan Bonner didn’t grow another body part in the offseason.
It might sound that way when the fifth-year Notre Dame defensive lineman describes his status heading into the season opener against Michigan. That’s because with a healthy right wrist, Bonner has essentially discovered a new limb to help him ward off offensive linemen.
“Since I started here, this is the healthiest I’ve been,” Bonner said. “I’m really looking forward to it. I’m the best I’ve been honestly. I’m really able to use my hands now. I’m playing with a whole ‘nother appendage. I get to see what it’s like to play with two hands on the field now.”
Bonner started and played in all 13 games last season for the Irish. But the 6-foot-4, 295-pound defensive tackle learned during the season that the lingering pain in his wrist was the result of a fracture.
Bonner had been dealing with that pain since the end of the 2016 season. It wasn’t until an elbow X-ray last season, Bonner said, that the issue in his wrist was properly identified. He said the fracture wasn’t discovered on previous X-rays, and that he chose to play through the pain.
“I was just in there getting treatment for the longest and just told coach, ‘Yeah, I’m better.’ It gets to season time, you want to play, you want to fight to earn your position,” Bonner said. “So I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m better.’
“Come to find out, I wasn’t. But I fought through it every day.”
Playing on the interior of the defensive line with a broken wrist, Bonner still managed 30 tackles, three tackles for a loss and two sacks in his senior season. After another season of going against eventual top-10 NFL draft picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey in practice, Bonner considered ending his football career.
As a January graduate of the Mendoza College of Business, Bonner could have jumped into the field of IT management. With his mother, Consuelo Hampton, fighting cancer for a third time, the need to find a job felt real. But Bonner wanted to continue fighting in his own way on the football field. This time, as a graduate student, Bonner would have a fair fight with two healthy wrists. He had surgery on his right wrist in late January.
“All the investment I put into it and knowing it will be a whole different scenario next season again having another appendage to work with,” Bonner said of his decision to return. “So I can really see what I can do now when I’m getting my hands on people, shedding blockers and just overall more athletic game play.”
Even though he’s playing nose guard now, Bonner doesn’t want that athleticism to be forgotten. At Chesterfield (Mo.) Parkway Central, he played linebacker and tight end. Nose guard was never part of his football plan.
Bonner joked that he still hasn’t given up the thought of playing tight end. He’s not afraid to offer his help to offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Chip Long.
“There’s times I’ll pop my head in,” Bonner said, “‘Hey, you’ve seen my highlight film, right? I can drop some pounds off and we can make it happen.’”
He’d have to convince defensive line coach Mike Elston to give him up first. Elston fought to keep Bonner and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery in the program during the offseason. When Tillery decided to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft, Elston decided the two players would flip positions to put Bonner inside shading the center and give Tillery more room to work on the outside of a guard.
“Bonner is such a tactician with his hands that he can really make a huge impact at nose,” Elston said in the spring.
Bonner can use his quickness to put himself in a position to routinely beat centers needing time to snap the ball. Now it’s his opponents who are temporarily limited with one hand.
“One thing I like, it’s really reactionary,” Bonner said. “Immediately off the snap, you’re on the center. I have my hands up real fast. With that initial contact, you can get an advantage by being really explosive there.”
With the injury concern behind him, Bonner wants to find out how high his potential could be. A healthy right wrist comes with a lot of confidence.
“I didn’t have a starting role going into last season, so when I really thought about this, I’m like, ‘You know what? I earned a starting role here with one less hand than I thought I had.’ It was a huge accomplishment doing that.
“Going through fall camp against Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey and all those guys, knowing that I was able to compete then and now seeing where this takes me in the future, I’m really excited about it.”