Anticipation built over months of change led to last Saturday. There was the Unity Walk, the warmups, the Tunnel Walk, all with 66,000 eager fans withstanding a frigid wind to watch a new era of Nebraska football. The start of the new era resembled a bygone one.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield called a fullback dive to the weak side for the game’s first play. Janiran Bonner lined up between quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Gabe Ervin Jr. on the first snap. The wide receiver, who converted to a hybrid tight end spot just before spring ball, heard the snap and stepped. Get the ball and just run, he told himself.
Bonner hit a hole in the defense, shrugged off one tackler. Isaac Gifford ran towards the line of scrimmage to grab Bonner’s legs. MJ Sherman came across to finish the tackle but not before a 7-yard gain. The Red-White game halted briefly to honor former head coach Frank Solich at that moment. That timeout served as a bridge between history and a component within Nebraska’s future offense. Head coach Matt Rhule called that a bucket list moment for him. He and Solich have a running joke about a fullback’s place in modern football dating back to their MAC days coaching against each other. Now, Rhule’s offense at Solich’s old program seems to include a fullback.
It was wide receiver coach Garrett McGuire’s idea. He thought Bonner could fit into a hybrid tight end role and the Ellenwood, Georgia, native was open to the idea. He met with tight end coach Bob Wager and the rest was history.
“It wasn’t like a hard transition,” Bonner said. “Just had to learn a lot more. It was a smooth transition, for real.”
Bonner said most of the team’s tight ends could take snaps at fullback. None played that role as much as him in the Red-White Game. Bonner’s opening 7-yard run was his longest of the game, as he finished with 21 yards on three carries. He also had an 11-yard catch. Somedays he worked with McGuire running routes in spring ball. Other times he’ll step in with E.J. Barthel and Nebraska’s running backs. “I’ve got to know everything,” Bonner said.
The position change allows Bonner to see the field more often and could potentially open a brighter professional future. Rhule mentioned after the Red-White Game that fullbacks still have their place, they just have to be more dynamic. They’re asked to do more in offenses, like Kyle Juszczyk with the San Francisco 49ers.
“Janiran can play every position that’s out there for us right now,” Rhule said. “I think he has a real chance, depending on how he continues to develop.”
The Huskers also have potential 240-pound lead blockers in Braden Klover and Trevor Ruth who could step into the fullback role. Bonner, however, showed a willingness to step into a blitz in a potential running lane as much as flaring out in the pass game.
“Janiran gives us a guy who can run it, and we’re still running power with him and ISO with him, and he goes in there, and then he runs option routes on third downs,” Rhule said. “So, he’s really a weapon I believe.”
Bonner redshirted last year without seeing the field. That season allowed him to adjust to the speed of the college game, something he’s comfortable in now after making a “huge” adjustment. He didn’t rigorously study film from Satterfield’s time at South Carolina to gather clues on his future offense. He instead spent that time working out and focusing on his own improvements. Bonner feels he made a big jump in the last year and there’s more room to grow. He wants to improve his entire game going forward.
Overall, Nebraska ran for a combined 192 yards in the Red-White Game. Bonner thought they ran the ball well, outside of some fumbles. Those are the points he knows the team must clean up going into the summer and fall camps. He chalked most of those fumbles up to a lack of focus—something correctable between the ears they can instill through reps at practice. Rhule mentioned that’s the next step for the Huskers, correcting those before starting any other sort of season. Players bought into the head coach’s mentality in order to turn the program’s fortunes around.
“We’re gonna be winners. I feel like everybody believes,” Bonner said. “The standard is going to be very high so we’re going to keep working as a team, keep perfecting our craft and do what we’re supposed to do, which is win.”