Jonathan Bonner will wait a bit longer for his first career sack.
The defensive lineman actually made it last weekend against Wake Forest but the official scorer in Notre Dame’s press box credited it to Romeo Okwara. Maybe it was the similar jersey numbers, Bonner in No. 55 and Okwara in No. 45. Probably it was the surprise Bonner was into the game at all.
The 13 real defensive snaps against Wake Forest were Bonner’s most in a non-blowout.
The performance doesn’t represent a revelation for Notre Dame’s defense, just a step in the right direction. And that could still be significant in the season’s final two weeks against Boston College and Stanford. Even with Jarron Jones potentially back for the playoffs, a competent alternative to Sheldon Day is welcome.
“I think (Bonner) 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 coach (Keith) Gilmore feeling much more comfortable with his ability to play the inside tackle techniques that are needed.”
Bonner said the switch from defensive end to defensive tackle came after the season-opener. That’s after he switched from defensive end to defensive tackle during his freshman year, a red-shirt season followed by a turf toe in spring practice that required surgery.
Kelly hyped Bonner’s measurables last spring, comparing them to NFL Combine numbers. That commentary – the sophomore said he can vertical jump 35 inches – increased the expectation about Bonner factoring into the mix this season, which hasn’t taken within Notre Dame’s six-man line rotation.
Maybe now it’s six-and-a-half, assuming Daniel Cage returns from concussion this week.
“Waiting really wasn’t on my mind, I was just going out to practice every day trying to get better,” Bonner said. “I knew eventually the time would come where I could play for the team.”
Patience may come easier for Bonner because he grew up a Notre Dame fan. His uncle, Dan Knott, was a reserve running back on the 1977 national title team. His grandfather, Elmon Hampton, is godfather to former Irish safety Sergio Brown.
When Notre Dame offered during summer camp before Bonner’s senior year, his commitment was almost immediate. And even though Boston College recruited Bonner out of Parkway Central in Missouri, it never stood a chance after the Irish came calling.
“That’s the dream school for me since the beginning,” Bonner said. “Going out, getting my first sack as a defensive lineman was a huge step for me, knock down another door.”
Bonner should do even more of that next year after Day departs, leaving the Irish with a potential four-man rotation on the interior with Jones, Cage and Jerry Tillery. That would be a long way from Bonner’s freshman year on the scout team.
Bonner got through it thanks to the support of classmates Pete Mokwuah, Jay Hayes and Jhonny Williams, who transferred out last off-season. Those practices wore on Bonner, who sometimes tried to do more than give the starters an honest look.
“Sometimes it gets a little boring down there so sometimes someone might go a little off track,” Bonner said. “You are going against the starters. You are going to get really good doing that, whether you noticed it or not.”
Does that mean Bonner ever beat two-time captain Nick Martin?
“I tried to,” Bonner said. “I got a couple plays on him.”
Last year that was fine progress. This year that’s getting a half-dozen meaningful snaps. Next year it might mean a regular rotation or pushing for a starting job.
Bonner hasn’t jumped up Notre Dame’s depth chart. He’s only climbing it.
“Going out, getting my first sack as a defensive lineman was a huge step for me, knock down another door,” Bonner said. “I go out every day expecting to play every week.”
More and more, Bonner will be meeting those expectations.