Healthy Jonathan Bonner didn't coast through fifth season at Notre Dame

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

The award Jonathan Bonner took home last year didn’t quite seem to fit.

Following his senior season, the defensive lineman was named Defensive Newcomer of the Year for 2017 at Notre Dame’s annual awards show. At that point, Bonner assumed it would be the final accolade of his football career.

Bonner believed his last game would be in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, and he would start a job following graduation later that month. It wasn’t emotional for him. He had accepted that as his path.

“I guess at the time I was OK with moving on,” Bonner said.

Fortunately for the Irish, that changed. Instead of finding work with his IT management degree from the Mendoza College of Business, Bonner decided to give football one more go at Notre Dame as a graduate student.

He had surgery to fix a fracture in his right wrist that he played with for most of the previous season. Then Bonner remained a fixture on No. 3 Notre Dame’s defensive line by starting all 12 games at nose guard for the undefeated Irish.

Bonner’s contributions were recognized at last week’s 2018 awards show when he was given the Humble & Hungry Award. He’s the first to receive the award from the Irish coaching staff.

“It means a lot,” Bonner said. “It’s a good verification of what I’ve done. I take pride in my work. I go out to practice every day with a mindset to get better.”

Bonner, a product of Chesterfield, Mo., knew the coaching staff appreciated his work ethic. He recalled a moment late in the season when defensive coordinator Clark Lea made a point to compliment the effort he continued to give.

“He’s like, ‘Man, we’re in week 11 now and you’re practicing even harder and harder now,’” Bonner said. “I always practice hard, but the fact that I was still doing it week 11 as a fifth-year guy, that’s something I want to show the younger guys. That’s something they should be able to follow. Just kind of setting that example of what it means to be humble and hungry is a good statement.”

The wear and tear of a season can slow down players in any class. A fifth-year senior like Bonner probably could have found opportunities to take it easy without worrying about losing playing time. But he didn’t come back for one more season to coast through it.

The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Bonner remained healthy throughout this season, which made it easier for him to give his all.

“Every practice before I go out, I tell myself, ‘I’m not getting injured today,’” Bonner said. “Doing that, you have to play your fastest. I learned the best way to prevent injury is to be the fastest person around you. Doing that throughout the season, it feels great to go out and perfect my craft with my brothers.”

Bonner’s impact for Notre Dame’s defense can easily be missed. He recorded only 20 tackles and one quarterback hurry this season while splitting time with sophomore Kurt Hinish at nose guard.

But the two of them allowed Jerry Tillery to slide further out to defensive tackle and have helped keep inside linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill from having to navigate through heavy traffic. Coney and Tranquill combined for 182 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss and seven sacks.

Defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara have been able to thrive on the outside with all the attention required on the interior of Notre Dame’s defense.

For as good as the Irish defensive line has been this season, the group will be overshadowed by the talent on Clemson’s defensive line when the two teams meet Dec. 29 in the College Football Playoff semifinal. The No. 2 Tigers (13-0) boast arguably the best unit in the country with three defensive linemen projected as first-round picks in the next NFL Draft: defensive end Clelin Ferrell and defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins.

Though the two defensive lines won’t actually go up against each other, Bonner knows that it’s another chance for the Irish unit to prove itself.

“That’s not our focus of the game, but we’re definitely aware that these two defensive lines are capable of changing the scope of the game,” Bonner said. “We’re going to have to be able to perform at our best if we want to have success in this game.”

The focus for Bonner has quickly shifted to the matchup with Clemson, but the end of the regular season allowed for some reflection. Following the 24-17 victory at USC, Bonner couldn’t help but think about how perfectly everything’s worked out for him.

“I came back because I knew we had something special,” Bonner said. “It really meant a lot that everyone else here was able to recognize that and become a brotherhood that we wanted. We made a commitment to achieving our full potential.”

“At the end of the game being 12-0, we had a four-hour plane ride back. It was really sinking in. Man, I could have been doing a lot of other things right now, but this is the absolute best route that I could have possibly taken. With it being a difficult decision in the beginning, I’m glad I went the route I did. It was like destiny we all ended up at this position.”

Notre Dame’s Jonathan Bonner (55) cases down Northwestern’s Solomon Vault (4) during the Notre Dame-Northwestern NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.