Jonathan Bonner is a tweener.
At 6-foot-3, 286 pounds, his body makeup looks to be that of an interior defensive lineman.
Put him in full pads and a uniform and he fits Notre Dame’s Big End position that combines strength and run-stopping ability with pass rush tendencies more bonus than prerequisite, much like current starter Isaac Rochell.
“Bonner has had a nice process of development the last two years,” said Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of the Chesterfield, Mo., product. “He’s really improved.”
The challenge for Bonner heading into his third year in the program – after preserving a year of eligibility as a freshman in 2014 – is to offer enough effectiveness to allow Rochell to slip inside at three-technique to help shore up an area that is a concern with the departure of Sheldon Day.
Rochell will not play defensive tackle on a full-time basis. But the more effective Bonner can be, the greater the comfort zone to slide the versatile Rochell to a position of need.
Early-entry freshman Khalid Kareem is the third man in the equation at Big End.
“In this defense, one of the hardest things is learning the playbook,” said Bonner, who made five tackles in 10 games as a red-shirt freshman in ’15.
“Me being a lot more confident in the playbook makes me a lot more confident on the field. You’re not thinking as much and everything becomes more natural and fluid on the field.”
There is no perfect fit for Bonner along the defensive line. If he were 6-foot-5 and not 6-foot-3, he would be a prototype big end. If he comfortably carried 305 pounds on his frame as opposed to 20 pounds less, he would be an ideal three-technique.
But that’s not who he is. Bonner is one of several Irish defensive linemen – Jay Hayes and Kareem to name a couple others – that are part-end, part-tackle. That probably won’t change over time, although it’s not something Bonner spends much time considering.
“I’ve practiced at all the positions.,” said Bonner, who recorded the first sack of his career against Wake Forest last fall. “I’m prepared for any position. I’m a versatile player. It hasn’t been one position or the other. I’ve taken a lot of reps.
“Big End is probably more comfortable for me. I can still go back inside, but I can use my athletic ability at Big End.”
In order to be a complete Big End, Bonner continues to hone his pass-rush moves.
“(The pass rush moves) I’ve been working on are a stab move, and then, off of that, a kind of push-pull shoulder snap. Those are my moves right now.
“I’ve watched film with (defensive line) Coach (Keith) Gilmore. I see changes where I’ve been able to get better with my pass rush, even to the point of getting in a two-point stance and working on all different types of moves.”
One of two things will get Bonner on the field this fall: an injury to Rochell, which would be an undesirable turn of events, or enough productivity to warrant shifting Rochell inside when the situation dictates.
“I think I’m a pretty good pass rusher,” Bonner said. “I think I’m someone who could help out in that area.
“I just have to show them I’m able to make plays. If (Rochell) has to come off the field, they have to trust the next person to do just about the same job. I’d like to improve on attacking on every snap and being a playmaker.”