Illinois coaches always knew Ra’Von Bonner could run. He gained 202 yards as a freshman and 395 as a sophomore. Solid numbers despite limited carries.
At UConn last Saturday, Bonner showed he is a dangerous receiver, too.
The junior tailback put Illinois on the board in the second quarter with a 28-yard catch and run.
It was Bonner’s second touchdown of the season. He ran 10 yards for a score in the opener against Akron.
He was happy to get back to the end zone.
“It was fun,” Bonner said. “But most important, we got the win.”
Bonner now has six career catches for 44 yards. The 28-yarder, a Bonner best, beefed up his average.
Bonner wants to catch more. As often as he is called on.
“It’s a part of my game that I’ve really been trying to work,” Bonner said.
His new position coach, Mike Bellamy, is all for it. Bellamy was a star receiver at Illinois and a second-round NFL draft pick. He returned to Illinois this year after earlier stints on the staff.
Bonner is a fan.
“Coach Bellamy has done a great job working with us with routes and catching the ball,” Bonner said. “Showing us how to catch properly, with the fingertips instead of the palms. That’s helped us out a lot.”
It’s more than just catching. Footwork is a big part of it.
“The drills that we do, some of them are tough and a lot of them are new for me personally,” Bonner said. “And just working on all the catching drills. Low balls, high balls, all kinds of catches.”
If he wants to keep playing after Illinois, Bonner needs to demonstrate he can catch the ball. Every time. The NFL is loaded with running backs who made teams in large part because of their hands.
“You can’t be a one-dimensional guy,” Bonner said.
Before the season, Bonner appeared to be Illinois’ third or fourth option in a crowded backfield.
But things changed.
In the opener against Akron, Mike Epstein suffered a season-ending knee injury. He will return in 2020. Also against the Zips, 1,000-yard rusher Reggie Corbin left the game with a hip pointer. He made the trip to UConn, but didn’t play.
Senior Dre Brown started against the Huskies. And redshirt freshman Jakari Norwood led the team in rushing with six carries for 62 yards, including a 50-yarder.
Corbin’s status for Saturday’s game against Eastern Michigan is unclear. If he doesn’t play, look for Norwood, Bonner and Brown to split the carries.
Bonner will do whatever he is asked. If Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith needs him to catch a pass or take a handoff from Peters, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound native of Cincinnati is ready and willing. And if he needs to clear a hole for another back or protect the quarterback, he will do that, too.
“I believe my blocking is definitely getting better,” Bonner said. “Especially since I’m getting older now. I’m able to read coverages a lot better (and) able to see the blitz coming.”
Learning from his mistake
If Bonner gets into the end zone against the Eagles this Saturday at Memorial Stadium, don’t expect much of a celebration.
After his score against UConn, he had an oops moment. Bonner high-fived a fan, which seems innocent enough. But the nearby official didn’t think so, flagging Bonner for unsporstmanslike conduct.
“I honestly did not know that just giving a fan a high-five would be a penalty,” Bonner said. “(The coaches) weren’t extremely mad because it wasn’t as if I was talking trash to another player or shoving another player.”
James McCourt had to kick off from the Illinois 20. But Bonner’s penalty didn’t cost the Illini because UConn fumbled the kickoff return and made it only to the 28. The Illinois defense forced a three-and-out.
“Good thing our defense took care of that penalty and shut them down,” he said.
For Bonner, it was a big “whew.”
“Now you know, just don’t let it happen again,” Bonner said.
So, what does Bonner plan on doing after his next touchdown?
“Giving it to the ref,” he said, “and celebrating with my teammates.”
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.