|« Princeton needs touchdowns in the red zone||NCAA Cabinet discusses agents, pro sports counseling panel »|
Jacksonville State’s Bonner excels as punt returner
Guys who return punts for college football teams perform in a lonely world, lining up all by themselves out on the field on punting downs.
At a glance it appears there isn’t another player within 50 yards in any direction, although that is probably an optical illusion. Still, the punt return guys are a long way from anyone in a game of smash-mouth football, lead-blocking and pile-on tackling.
At Jacksonville State University, that player is Alan Bonner.
He’s a little guy, listed at 5-foot-11, 168 pounds. But he plays with a big heart, nerves of steel and the confidence of a wild-west gunfighter.
“He has a demeanor about him for success, he is very poised, he is very confident,” said head coach Jack Crowe.
“A single return guy standing all alone back there waiting for a kick had better have some poise. He had better be confident, I can tell you that. There are so many elements into catching a punt — the sun may be in your eyes, it may be raining, or windy and cold. In addition, nowadays the kick is not always a spiral. It may come end over end, or it may be a blooper or the kicker runs to the side and kicks it over the line and it bounces down field.”
Because of all the uncertainties, a receiver must have the ability to react to the situation.
“If he has to think about what to do, he’s in trouble,” Crowe said. “He has to be clearly focused and ready regardless of the circumstances.”
Bonner is that kind of a player. Crowe calls this member of the Gamecock squad a “rare bird” who gives his coach a lot of confidence.
Two years ago when Bonner was a freshman, Jacksonville State was playing Florida State in Tallahassee. It was a rainy night, windy and on a slippery field. Crowe was on edge as he watched the regular return guy having problems catching the ball during pregame warm-ups. Bonner suddenly caught the coach’s eye and the first time the Gamecocks lined up to receive a punt, Crowe grabbed him.
“Go out there and catch the punt. Get us a touchdown if you can, but make sure you catch the ball,” he told the freshman. “He had not played (returned) in our first game and I had not planned to play him in this one, so I didn’t have any idea what he would do.
“But I remembered Pat Dye doing that with Trey Gainous when he was a freshman. It was when I was at Auburn and we were playing Tennessee, and the first time Trey touched the ball, he returned it 81 yards for a touchdown.”
Bonner recalls that he was shocked when Crowe told him to go in against Florida State. Although he had been practicing returning punts back in Jacksonville, he was No. 3 on the depth chart and wasn’t expecting to play that night.
“It was like being thrown into the fire,” Bonner said. “It was a bad night, weather-wise, and the call came so quick and unexpected. I was really nervous and scared. But once I got on the field, and the ball came down and I had it in my hands, I was confident. I knew then that I could do it, and I haven’t been nervous since then.”
Bonner didn’t return that punt for a touchdown, but he did gain 12 yards.
“Now that’s a playmaker, and he is a playmaker,” said Crowe.
Before the year ended he had been selected the Ohio Valley Conference Special Teams Player of the Week (9/27/09) and was named to the OVC’s All-Newcomer Team at the end of the season.
“Being back there all alone waiting for a punt isn’t necessarily a lonely feeling, it’s an exciting feeling,” Bonner said. “To me, being in that position is where the excitement is. I know that crowd in the stands, all the fans, they are anxiously waiting for the ball to come down, too, and they want to see what I can do with it.
“I love that feeling, of being the man in the spotlight. Before the ball is punted, I look around to see exactly where I’m at, to see what the setup is. Once the ball is kicked, I take one quick glance to see who will be coming downfield and from what direction, but after that my entire concentration is on that ball. I only have eyes for it — it’s just me and the football.
“I watch it go up. I watch it come down as I move into position to catch it. I don’t look at the guys coming down field toward me. I don’t look at anything until I have caught the ball and have it well within my grasp. Then I start the return.”
Bonner said he wants to make a touchdown every time he catches the ball, whether as a return man or wide receiver. But since that isn’t realistic, his goal is to average gaining 13 yards. His current average is 15.2 yards, and when he saw that figure on the stat sheet, he added, “I’m going to set a new goal now. I will try to average 18 yards per touch.”
In high school at Newnan, Ga., he was a quarterback his freshman and sophomore seasons, then switched to wide receiver and kick-returner his last two seasons. “I wanted to be a receiver because that was my best position to move up,” he said.
Crowe said Bonner was a borderline SEC prospect as a wide receiver when he signed with Jacksonville. He has gained 20 pounds, has become a premier athlete and has the ability to play at the major college level.
“We are lucky to have him,” Crowe said. “He comes from an athletic family and has relatives who played college football.”
Jacksonville State is now basically a running team, with four top-notch halfbacks plus a quarterback with the potential of making big plays running the football. Crowe said because of this, Bonner doesn’t get the ball as much as he should as a wide receiver.
In the first five games he’s only caught eight passes for 135 yards. Bonner understands, even brags, about the team’s running backs, pointing out two outstanding freshmen backs.
“Because they don’t throw the ball to me that much, I try to score a touchdown every time I catch a pass,” he said.
He hasn’t scored in the first five games this fall, but keeps hoping. His next opportunity will be this weekend when the Gamecocks travel to play Austin Peay.
By By Jimmy Smothers, Gadsden Times