Let’s talk about John Bonney

John Bonney. (Will Gallagher/IT)

John Bonney. (Will Gallagher/IT)

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John Bonney was once a fairly well regarded recruit. He was a four-star out of Houston Lamar (DB High?), an opening invitee, and a kid boasting offers from just about everywhere in the nation. At the 2013 Nike SPARQ combine he ran a 4.62 40, a 4.1 shuttle, tossed the ball 41’, and jumped a 34.3” vertical, which puts him amongst the top echelon of athletes even at defensive back.

Athleticism like that could potentially translate to cornerback, depending on scheme and mastery of technique, and at most universities a kid with that kind of athleticism would basically have to play cornerback. At Texas many had him pegged as a future safety.

Many might forget that he was very close to being a Baylor Bear and flirted strongly with the idea when Mack Brown allegedly told him to “look around” after receiving the boot. I had him pegged as an ideal field safety for their cover 4 defense and was less than thrilled that he might end up there rather than Austin. However Charlie Strong kept him in tow and he came to Austin and took a redshirt year to work on cornerback techniques while Quandre Diggs, Duke Thomas, and Mykkele Thompson locked down the secondary.

While he was redshirting, Texas loaded up in 2015 with two of the highest rated cornerbacks in all the land (Holton Hill and Kris Boyd) while also adding another prospect out of Florida in Davante Davis. Meanwhile John Bonney put together a nice spring game playing nickel and it seemed that he was the heir apparent to Quandre Diggs at that hybrid position. Then a funny thing happened on the way to South Bend, the staff moved their best DB (Duke Thomas) inside to nickel and elevated John Bonney to starting cornerback in time to work against future NFL wide receiver Will Fuller.

Fuller went off against Texas, catching seven passes for 142 yards and two TDs, but a glance back at the tape actually reveals that against Bonney he only caught two balls for 31 yards. The other five receptions, 111 yards, and two scores came mostly against Duke Thomas, Dylan Haines, and the younger DBs (as did also a bubble that Duke tackled four yards behind the line).

Here’s what the two catches against Bonney looked like:



In the first example Bonney has him locked up in press coverage and the Irish just beat him with a comeback. The second clip is similar, he’s covering Fuller in a ton of grass and gets beat again on a deep comeback when Duke Thomas was late to drop into that window.

It was a pretty impressive first game for a redshirt freshman playing on the road against as good an opponent as you’ll typically find at the collegiate level. He eventually gave up his starting spot when he couldn’t hold up against the Iso tactics of the Oklahoma State offense:


He relinquished his spot to Davante Davis and Holton Hill, who with Kris Boyd and Sheroid Evans held down the starting roles from then until midway through the 2016 season. After the debacle against Oklahoma in fact, when Dede Westbrook burned Texas for 232 yards on 10 catches, Bonney was elevated back to starter and held the job for the rest of the year. In those remaining seven games he had nine pass break-ups, which put him in the team lead by a solid margin with P.J. Locke in second place (with six).

For the 2017 season John Bonney will be a redshirt junior with experience (in practice if not games) at virtually every position in the secondary. There are new schemes to learn but he has the technique to play multiple positions and has demonstrated in the past the willingness to work and master coverages.

So he could very well be in line for a breakout 2017, right? The problem is that he’s not one of the fan’s anointed talents. The preference is for Brandon Jones to win one spot and DeShon Elliott another, both of whom are big, physical, and athletic talents that offer the kind of intimidating play-making that everyone craves from the safety spots. Bonney fell out of favor when he started at corner over higher rated talents, lost his job in the midst of losing seasons (suggesting much of the blame for those losses rested on him), and then in a spring game at safety this happened:


That was a highlight on LHN for weeks as everyone laughed and exulted over how horrifying Chris Warren would be the coming season running in the open field on overmatched guys like John Bonney. The versatile DB’s reputation was set as “a tweener who’s not athletic enough to play cornerback and not physical enough to play safety.” Perhaps in addition to, “the guy that almost did the unthinkable and chose Baylor over Texas, rather than those guys we beat A&M head to head for!”

If Texas didn’t regularly bring in highly heralded talents and instead had to develop what they had, the perspective might be the more optimistic “swiss army knife DB that can play multiple roles, might become a dominant safety with more time in the weight room.”

The list of guys at Texas that started out as versatile but flawed and ended up becoming great players isn’t too short. Adrian Phillips and Mykkele Thompson stand out from this decade, Michael Huff and Aaron Ross from the previous one.

Currently Bonney’s listed at 6-1, 200 (the height is probably generous) and Herman says they like him at boundary safety because he’s “bright” and “a physical guy that can support the run.” I would still have him pegged at field safety because of his coverage and being “bright” enough to set calls from that spot but we’ll see how things develop.

I know those who have their hearts set on a Jones-Elliott pairing in the defensive backfield would be disappointed, but don’t count out Bonney this year and don’t allow a few plays and misconceptions from the past to allow you to regard him as the next Blake Gideon or Dylan Haines.