Coming out of Bridgeport, W. Va., Tonkery didn't get a great deal of national attention. He was rated as the #64 defensive back prospect in the country by Scout.com, but didn't have many Division I schools on his doorstep. Tennessee showed some interest, but it was West Virginia, specifically assistant coach Steve Dunlap, who looked at the lanky running back and saw potential as a defensive safety. West Virginia offered a scholarship in the summer prior to his senior year, and Tonkery, a lifelong Mountaineer fan, was quick to snap it up.
Again, that news didn't excite some onlookers, who figured it was a case of an in-state player getting a nod from his home state school. However, in his first spring, Tonkery is putting any such notions to rest. During West Virginia's first three weeks of practice, he has demonstrated his ability with several hard hits and earned notice for his progression.
Understand, though, that he's still in the early stages of the journey that most college football players take. The road from scout team to playing time is a long one, and Tonkery knows that he still has a great deal to improve upon. But there's also no denying the ground that he's covered so far, and he lists a pair of keys to the progress he has made to date.
"Everyone is trying to help everyone more," he said of the defense that must replace many key cogs from the machine that dominated most opponents a year ago. "Watching film this winter was a big part of trying to get ready to play. That film in the off-season helped a lot. I watched the previous guys play and tried to learn from them. Then in the spring, getting to play and getting some reps and experience helps a lot too. It helps me to get the feel of things."
Tonkery is playing in a backup role at bandit this spring, but is also trying to learn the other strong safety position.
"Spur and bandit are interchangeable, so you have to learn both. I am more comfortable at the bandit, because I'm trying to learn just the one position. But I need to be able to play both. I'm working my way into it. The speed of the game is still one of the biggest things to adjust to. I still feel like I'm a step behind sometimes."
Tonkery admits that he's still working to fine tune all of his defensive assignments, and has a goal of "not messing up so much" as the spring winds down. His improvement in that area is apparent, however, and as he continues to refine his knowledge, he'll be able to play more instinctively, and cut down even more on those errors. That, in turn will allow him to unleash even more physical play. Although he's not an eye-popping physical specimen, he hits well, reminding some observers of a Mike Lorello in WVU's defense.
"I'm just trying to get better each and every play and trying to play physical," Tonkery said of his goals for this year. "I have to get better at that."
As an in-state native, Tonkery understands that he might get a bit more attention than other players in his position, but he doesn't feel any added pressure to perform.
"Not really," he said of the thought that he has something to prove to uphold the state's reputation as a producer of football talent. "Everyone gets their chance. We have a lot of walk-ons too They have just as much pressure as I do. Once you are a part of the team you are part of the team, so that doesn't really matter."
That's not to say, however, that the redshirt freshman isn't excited about the chance to play in front of his relatives and acquaintances. As the Gold-Blue game approaches, he's looking forward to that opportunity.
"The spring game will be the first game for me, so it will be a cool experience," he said of next week's spring finale. "I have a lot of family and friends that are proud of me."
If Tonkery continues to improve as he has during his first season as a Mountaineer, those friends and relatives will have a lot more to be proud of during his career.