By Brian Kimball
Published: Thursday, October 22, 2009
Updated: Thursday, October 22, 2009
Kicker John Bonano kicks off during Arizona’s 43-38 victory over the Stanford Cardinal Saturday at Arizona Stadium. Bonano replaced kicker Alex Zendejas for the kick-off specialist position and even recorded a tackle in his first game. Courtesy Arizona Athletics
During the Arizona football team’s 43-38 win Saturday evening against Stanford, one Wildcat made his collegiate football debut. But he wasn’t easy to spot, even though he did more than was expected of him.
That’s because it was sophomore kicker John Bonano.
Redshirt sophomore Alex Zendejas has struggled getting kickoffs to the end zone so far this season and UA coaches told Bonano there was a chance he might play against Stanford. Sure enough, his number was called in the clash against the Cardinal.
“I was definitely excited going into the game,” Bonano said. “Just last year I was in the stands hoping to be out there, and it was surreal being finally on the field.”
Fortunately for his teammates, he wasn’t awestruck for long. Stanford receiver Chris Owusu is one of the best in the nation — he already has three returns for scores this year. Bonano found that out firsthand when he made a solo tackle in the first quarter.
“All the guys were really supportive. They came over and high-fived me and said, ‘Awesome job,’ so that was exciting,” he said. “I played linebacker in high school so I’m used to tackling, but definitely, at this level, I’m used to kicking.”
It seems as if he might want to brush up on his tackling form, because special teams coach Jeff Hammerschmidt said Bonano would assume the kickoff duties for the rest of the year “unless something drastic were to happen.” While it seems as if Zendejas got demoted, in actuality it might have been a bonus.
“Bonano did a good job out there on Saturday and his performance just makes me want to work harder,” Zendejas said. “I get to focus a little more on my field goals now and that’s good.”
Still the Wildcats’ No. 1 option for kicking field goals, Zendejas doesn’t have to stress about fine-tuning his skills at essentially two different positions. Hammerschmidt said this year’s team is “fortunate” to have a kickoff specialist and a field goal specialist. Now that Bonano has taken some of the pressure off of Zendejas, both kickers can excel at their respective tasks.
“It makes a lot of sense because they’re two different kicks,” said assistant head coach Tim Kish. “One is just ‘kick it and see how far you can kick it.’ The other one has got to rely on accuracy.
“We still want some accuracy and want to place the ball in kickoff coverage,” he added. “But for the most part, it’s just getting the kick down there deep and giving our guys a chance to get underneath it because — for coverage — that’s most important.”
That’s what Bonano provides for the Wildcats, except when he launched a fourth-quarter kickoff out of bounds. Oddly, Stanford declined the penalty, opting to have the native of Salinas, Calif., re-kick. Admittedly happy for a second chance, Bonano blasted the ball to the end zone, helping Arizona bottle up Owusu on the play.
With the increase in reps to help him find his new role on the team, Bonano’s coaches said he’ll only get better. If that holds true, UA fans could get used to seeing the other team down on one knee in the end zone when Bonano is on the field.
“It’s a lot of repetition, so you’re doing the same thing every time. If you tweak one thing in your approach, like one step longer, it could throw off your whole kick,” Bonano said. “On the sidelines, I’m constantly practicing my run-up, making contact with the ball. Once I get that down I should be hitting the end zone consistently.”