Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Once a Receiver, Now a Fullback, Bonner Represents Progress in Rhule’s First Spring at Nebraska

April 22, 2023

In a different time, just slightly over a year ago, Janiran Bonner may have envisioned himself catching passes from Jeff Sims. He kind of had to, right? That’s a guess on my part.

Bonner, a 4-star wide receiver from Ellenwood, Georgia, was committed to Georgia Tech, where Sims was the clear starter, until Feb. 2, 2022. He flipped to Nebraska on signing day, choosing the Huskers over the Yellow Jackets and reported offers from Georgia, Oklahoma, Michigan, Florida State, Auburn and Tennessee, to name a few. Bonner was, by almost any outfit that ranks such things, one of the 50 best high school wide receivers in the 2022 class.

Some back-of-the-envelope math: If every Power 5 school “starts” three wide receivers on average and, hypothetically, each of those 65 schools have access to the best receivers in the country each year, that’s 195 starting receivers per year. It’s not this practically, but theoretically that could be the 195 best college wide receivers in the country each year, which, if you were a college coach trying to find those players, you’d select from the 200 or so best high school wide receivers each year if you could.

As one of the 50 best in that group in 2022, Bonner’s position as a future Power 5 starter at wide receiver would’ve seemed pretty safe.

Yet Bonner, who redshirted last season at Nebraska, switched positions this spring. He’s listed as a tight end, but really he’s a fullback. It’s a position the new Husker staff wants in this offense, but also happens to be the most fan-service-y position possible right now.

Fullbacks were already sort of an afterthought when Nebraska was using them to great effect in the 1990s, and, as the Huskers’ win totals shrank in the years to come, the fullback became a symbol of what once was.

When Nebraska fans heard new offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield sing the praises of a fullback––and this is another guess on my part––they had to think, “Cool,” shortly followed by the realization that the Huskers had no true fullbacks on the roster.

Enter Bonner, a highly touted wide receiver, now listed at tight end, who will probably play a modern combination of fullback and tight end in 2023.

On Saturday, he took what was largely a ceremonial first carry, a fullback trap out of the I-formation, for 7 yards. After that carry, Bonner took the ball to the sideline and it was presented to Frank Solich. He played fullback at Nebraska, listed (perhaps generously) at 5-foot-8, 162 pounds as a senior in 1965, before becoming a key assistant on Tom Osborne’s staff. Solich was Osborne’s successor in 1998, unceremoniously fired in 2003, Ohio’s head coach for 16 seasons after that and finally welcomed back to Lincoln, this Saturday, for all that he offered the program.

Solich’s position, which has come to embody so much of what Nebraska fans value about Nebraska football, is now Bonner’s position. It’s still not the sexiest.

I’m going to make one more big guess here: Bonner, as that 4-star wide receiver in high school, probably didn’t dream about three-point stances or taking on linebackers. Those are things a fullback has to do. As Husker fans saw in the golden days, the potential for splash plays is high, but that potential comes with a lot of ugly, unforgiving work.

Can Bonner do it?

“Yes,” head coach Matt Rhule said.

In addition to that first carry, Bonner had two others on Saturday, totaling 12 yards. In addition to that he led on isos, pass-blocked edge rushers, did what was asked. He didn’t catch a pass from Sims, now at Nebraska as well, but he probably will eventually.

“Janiran can play every position for us right now,” Rhule said. “I think he has a real chance to develop.”

There are bigger, bulkier fullbacks who might be best suited for clear running plays, but if Nebraska has to run those plays with Bonner, it will. It did on Saturday, and he offers versatility others may not. He can run it as a change of pace, evidenced by 7 yards gained on the Solich carry. He can catch it, evidenced by his high school career as a top-flight receiver prospect.

“He’s really a weapon, I believe,” Rhule said.

Saturday’s spring game offered glimpses of that, but spring games are tricky. How much can we really take from an intrasquad game where every positive has to correspond with a negative?

That question never becomes easy to answer, but if you’re looking for a summary of Rhule and staff’s time with the program so far, Bonner is the best summary I have.

He was a 4-star wide receiver, and he could’ve ridden that to a place that didn’t ask him to be anything else.

At Nebraska, he’s now a fullback who’s listed as a tight end. He looked good in both roles, which might be the same role in this offense.

Neither role is easier, and that’s not a bad way to enter the offseason.

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