It was a dark and rainy night in Tallahassee and not only did Bonner field the ball cleanly in a tight game, he returned it 12 yards. From that point on, he was a special teams star.
“I was third string punt return,” Bonner recalled. “The first two guys went out there and muffed some punts. (Coach Jack Crowe) came to me and said be ready, I’m going to throw you out there. Just catch the ball and we’ll live with that.
“I went out and caught the ball, stuck my foot in the ground and got like 13 yards. It felt like the whole team was on my back. They were all behind me then. Ever since then I came out with the confidence that if I get a chance to catch any punts, I’ll try to make the best of my opportunity.”
The next game, at Alabama A&M, he returned a punt 64 yards for the Gamecocks’ final touchdown. It’s the only punt he’s brought back all the way so far. He did return a kickoff for a touchdown against Murray State in 2010.
Bonner was a late recruiting pickup for JSU, calling the Gamecocks after UAB pulled its offer two weeks before signing day. The original plan was to redshirt him, but he made the trip to Florida State and Crowe ultimately turned to him after becoming dissatisfied with the return team's results to that point in the game.
"I didn't trust anybody else," Crowe said.
Bonner’s next time returning punts turned into every time, and now he is the FCS punt return king. He ranks first among active career leaders in punt return yards (916), yards per game (25.4), total returns (78) and returns per game (2.2).
His 31 yards this season rank second in the Ohio Valley Conference and his current 15.5-yard average would be 10th nationally if he had enough returns to qualify
“I couldn’t have guessed that I would be in this situation right now coming in, but it’s an honor, I can promise you that,” Bonner said. “I love being back there and having a chance to change the game at any moment. It’s exciting each time I get back there and that’s what keeps my drive going.”
But returning punts isn’t the only place Bonner can make an impact. Crowe has called him the Gamecocks’ “go-to guy” at receiver.
The Newnan, Ga., product can make things happen either catching the ball or running it. He scored a touchdown both ways in the opener against Arkansas. He had a 205-yard receiving game in last year’s loss to Eastern Kentucky -- this week's opponent -- including two second-half touchdowns that helped the Gamecocks build a 24-point lead with 7:25 to play.
For his career, he has 77 catches for 1,304 yards and 13 touchdowns. As a runner, he has eight carries for 47 yards.
“He’s one of those guys – and we’ve had a few – you don’t ever walk away from a game that he didn’t get a chance to impact the game,” Crowe said. “He does get his touches, but we have to make sure he gets enough touches. I don’t think there’s a better receiver in the league.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.