Bonilla Still Leading

WOODSTOCK, Ga. --- An off-season injury has altered North Carolina pledge Ayden Bonilla's role for Etowah High's football team this fall, but he still plans to make an impact.

"I was hoping for a great year and leading my team to a state championship as a player," Bonilla said. "But now I'm coaching, so I'll still lead them – just not how I wanted to. I'm still leading my team. This isn't going to stop me from being a leader."

Bonilla, a 6-foot-1, 193-pound safety, suffered a torn ACL this summer, ending his senior football season as a player before it even begun.

"Missing that experience of his senior year is certainly a drawback, but I think coaching has given him a different perspective of his position," Etowah head coach Dave Svehla said. "It's caused him to look at things a little bit differently. There is no substitute for playing in the fall, but he's getting the next best thing."

Bonilla has quickly taken to coaching.

"Players actually look toward me after every play," Bonilla said. "I coach them up – I've been coaching them up every practice and I've been breaking down film for them. I broke down the scrimmage the other day. I wrote down what the safety did wrong and what he did well. And I'm going to do that every game."

The injury occurred in late June during a seemingly harmless, noncontact seven-on-seven contest. A routine backpedal ended with Bonilla on the ground clutching his right knee.

"I heard a pop," Bonilla said. "I was thinking the whole time of what I thought it was, because usually when you hear a pop it's usually that. But [the trainers] were saying that my ACL looked good when they were looking at it. They said it was my LCL and said I'd be back for my first game. That got my hopes up."

After sitting out the remainder of the seven-on-seven, Bonilla awaited official word from his doctor.

"I was kind of okay, because they were saying it was my LCL," Bonilla said. "But it was hurting all over the place. I was kind of getting a little worried, but I kept on telling everybody ‘It's fine, it's fine.'"

The next day, Bonilla found out that his fears were correct.

"I went to the doctor and found out it was my ACL," Bonilla said. "I cried.

"I was so disappointed. I was thinking it was my ACL the whole time, because I heard a pop and I couldn't move it at all."

On July 11, Bonilla had surgery on his knee. He's expected to be at 100-percent by next June.

"The thing about Ayden is he has a tremendous work ethic," Svehla said. "We put our kids through a pretty strenuous offseason program. Ayden is the kind of kid that will do that and then go do additional work on his own. There's no question in my mind that he'll rehab to 100-percent."

Bonilla is already walking without the aid of crutches and expects to be running in a few weeks.

As everyone knows, a verbal commitment is nonbinding. Thus, UNC is under no obligation to honor Bonilla's pledge following his injury. But the Tar Heels' staff plans to do just that.

"Ayden was very upfront with their coaching staff," Svehla said. "And to their credit – they've talked to Ayden a lot about family – they made it very clear that when he committed that he was going to be a part of that family at North Carolina and they were going to take care of him."

That support helped Bonilla through the early days of his injury.

"That really made me feel like I made the right decision, because they were sticking by me," Bonilla said. "It gives me hope now. They picked me for a reason and they believe in me that I can be something for the Tar Heels despite the injury."

Weekly phone conversations with Larry Fedora and assistant coaches Walt Bell and Vic Koenning have aided Bonilla during his rehab.

"It's like a family," Bonilla said.

"Coach Fedora said ‘It's an obstacle now and you can overcome this obstacle.' He mentioned to me about Gio Bernard when he tore his ACL his freshman year and look where he is now – he's with Cincinnati."

Bonilla says there's no change to his UNC enrollment plans. He'll enroll in the second summer semester and be a full participant next preseason.

"Training camp is when we'll hit," Bonilla said. "It will be over a year since my surgery."

Bonilla is unsure which one of the three safety positions he'll play within UNC's 4-2-5 defense.

"They don't really know for sure, because me, Cameron [Albright], and Allen [Artis], we're almost the same size and same abilities," Bonilla said. "We can all tackle, but pick the ball off."

Bonilla has primarily played strong safety for Etowah but was making a move to free this offseason.

"He has great size – especially for a safety," Svehla said. "He's long, he's athletic… He has really good hips for a guy as tall as he is. He played safety for us, but we felt like if we needed someone to man up the top receiver on the other team, Ayden would be the guy that would do that."

This season, Bonilla plans to be in attendance for four of UNC's home games, including its opener against Middle Tennessee State. He and his father have also purchased tickets for the UNC-Georgia Tech game in Atlanta. Additionally, he's looking forward to catching the "Zero Dark Thursday" game against Miami and the season opener against South Carolina from the comfort of his own home.

"I'm really excited about the South Carolina game and I know [UNC] is going to upset them," Bonilla said.

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