When Derek Dooley took the head coaching job at the University of Tennessee, he spoke about the Vol For Life program he wanted to implement and how it was important to win football games but also teach players how to become men, preparing them for life after college.
He talked of how the UT program -- which had fallen on embarrassing times from a discipline standpoint -- needed to be restored with good kids who were also good players who would be leaders and ambassadors for the university. He also noted then that there would be future instances, as with any school, where they would take chances on players who may be character risks but could help the program and be rehabilitated. In Dooley's estimation, having a team full of quality students and people would assist those few players with issues to grow and move on from mistakes.
Dooley and the Vols, on Saturday, decided Columbus (Ga.) Carver cornerback Deion Bonner's reward was worth the risk of a scholarship and potential public relations fallout. The standout cornerback went public with his commitment to the Vols this afternoon.
Nine months after Bonner -- one of the most highly recruited players in the Southeast -- was arrested and eventually plead guilty to a misdemeanor following his involvement in the theft of iPods and iPhones from several University of Georgia football players in UGA's locker room while on a visit to see the Bulldogs, he has gotten an opportunity to play for UT.
Bonner openly admitted his bad decision, one about which he has seemed contrite in recent interviews. While we aren't going to rehash in depth the situation, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution [and the link within this story as well]:
Deion Bonner, Marquise Hawkins and an unidentified juvenile from Columbus were arrested by UGA police and charged with theft by taking over the weekend. They’re accused of stealing iPods and iPhones from the unsecured lockers of seven football players on April 7 during an open-house event at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. The estimated value of the stolen items was $1,970.
Bonner was charged with one count of theft by taking, Hawkins was charged with two counts of theft by taking and the unidentified juvenile with three counts of theft by taking, according to Williamson. Bonner and Hawkins were booked at Athens-Clarke County jail a little after 9 a.m. Monday morning and have $1,500 bonds posted on each count. The crimes are considered misdemeanors.
Bonner was suspended for the season's first five games but additionally sat three more because of a school suspension, plead guilty to a misdemeanor, served his probation, made financial restitution and performed community service.
In other words, he paid his debt to society ... as well as to the victims. The incident was the first time Bonner had ever had a reported brush with authorities. Once the incident became public, his recruitment essentially stalled as most major programs decided to look elsewhere for defensive back help. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound corner who once had offers from Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, Florida State, Clemson, Miami, Southern Cal, South Carolina and others, had his phone quit ringing off the hook.
Once Sal Sunseri was hired to be defensive coordinator at UT, the man who was once recruiting Bonner to play for the Crimson Tide, began contacting Bonner again. Oklahoma began wanting him to visit. So did others. Bonner was slated to visit Norman next weekend with an offer from the Sooners, but he committed to Sunseri on Tuesday and made it public this weekend while on his official visit to Knoxville after the latest of several conversations with Dooley.
Bonner told Volquest.com that "[Dooley's] got trust in me and I won't let him or Tennessee down."
In the six games Bonner did get to play for powerhouse Columbus, he was simply astonishing. He wound up with nine interceptions, four forced fumbles, recorded 27 tackles, earned first-team All-State and was named co-MVP of the Georgia All-Star game. He is a four-star prospect as rated by Rivals and ESPN. Scout and 247 Sports ranks him as a three-star prospect.
He fills a great need for the Vols and is certainly talented enough to step in and play immediately. When UT lost JUCO cornerback Otis Jacobs to Texas A&M on early JUCO signing day, the thoughts of getting back in on an elite defensive back seemed slim. Now, UT has one committed and is hoping to get a visit from California DB and four-star Oregon State commitment Devian Shelton next weekend.
Bonner's commitment gives Tennessee something it didn't have this year -- a big, physical corner who also has a nose for the ball and elite ball skills. While Izaeua Lanier and Justin Coleman look like they are going to develop those, neither showed the ability to actually finish interceptions the way rising senior Prentiss Waggner did last season. Bonner was a turnover machine in high school, and hopefully, he can provide that in Knoxville. UT now has him and Tino Thomas -- another player about which coaches are excited -- coming in to play cornerback in this class.
Bonner's commitment leaves the Vols with three spots available in this class as of now, but current cornerback commitment Daniel Gray is visiting West Virginia this weekend, and that situation is one to watch in a numbers crunch for UT. It is unclear whether Bonner will take his visit to Oklahoma next weekend, but given UT taking a chance on him, I would guess he's finished with the recruiting process and will sign with the Vols in February.