Dusty Bonner has been one of my favorite Kentucky football players since he donned the blue and white in 1997. Coming out of Valdosta, Georgia, the strong-armed and accurate Bonner sat patiently behind UK's Tim Couch for two years, and when given the opportunity to start, he blazed his way into the UK record books.
Starting as quarterback for the 'Cats in the 1999 season, Bonner led the SEC by throwing for 3,266 yards (No. 6 in UK history) and 26 touchdowns for Hal Mumme's 6-6 Wildcats. Bonner's 65.2% completion rate that season is the third best completion percentage in UK history, and his career 65.3% completion rate is second in Kentucky football history. In 1999, Bonner also led the SEC with a 137.0 quarterback efficiency rating, and his 3,125 total yards (No. 6 in UK history) also led the league. Moreover, Bonner is responsible for tossing a school-record 16 straight completions versus UConn.
In his 12 games as the starting Wildcat signal-caller, Bonner eclipsed the 300-yard mark five times, and the 400-yard passing mark twice -- 446 yards versus Louisville, 421 yards versus Georgia, 361 yards versus Tennessee, 339 yards versus UConn, and 304 yards versus Indiana.
Suffice it to say, I wasn't happy, when in the summer of 2000, it was announced that Bonner was transferring to Division II Valdosta State for his final two years. Why that happened ... well, we'll cover that in a moment, but his Valdosta State career was truly a work of offensive art -- Bonner was a two-time winner of what amounts to the Division II Heisman Trophy, the Harlon Hill Trophy. Bonner, in his two years with the Blazers, threw for 8,163 yards and 107 touchdowns. He completed an outstanding 71.1% of his passes (649-913), and led his team to the D II playoffs both years.
After leaving Valdosta State, Bonner was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Atlanta Falcons, but never saw game action. Bonner later matriculated to the af2's (arena league) Lexington Horsemen where won the league's Most Valuable Player award in 2003 by passing for 2,833 yards and 63 touchdowns. In 2004, he led the Horsemen to the af2 Championship, throwing for 2,695 yards and 72 touchdowns. Bonner later held the position of General Manager for the Horsemen.
The 1999 'Cats, led by Bonner's bazooka arm, were full of talented players -- Tight end James Whalen was Bonner's top pass catcher with 90 receptions (a UK record) for 1,019 yards; running back Anthony White accounted for 1,031 total yards (562 rushing, 469 receiving); wide receiver Quentin McCord, and defensive back Marlon McCree were all instrumental in UK's appearance in the 1999 Music City Bowl, a 20-13 loss to the Syracuse Orangemen. And for those interested in UK football's ignominious streaks (you know who you are) -- Bonner was the last UK quarterback to lead the 'Cats to a victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks, a 30-10 road victory in 1999.
Recently, Bonner agreed to talk to A Sea of Blue about his outstanding career. Here's what the UK great had to say:
ASOB: How big of an influence on your college choice was the possibility of playing for Hal Mumme and Tony Franklin, and their high-flying offense? Also, what other colleges showed showed an interest in your talents? Being from Georgia, did the Dawgs or Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets make an offer?
DB: "Honestly, that wasn't a factor at all. The most honest answer I can give is that I wanted to play Division I football, and hoped for the SEC. Kentucky was the only SEC school to offer. I was offered by some small schools and military academies, but my dream was to play in the SEC."
"The first answer kind of answers the second question. The Dawgs and Jackets showed zero interest. Florida and Florida State had me down for unofficial visits, but neither offered, or even came close to offering."
ASOB: Sitting behind Tim Couch for two years must have been a learning experience for you. What, if any practice, preparation, or game habits of his did you take as your own?
DB: "I learned a lot from Tim. I feel like one of my biggest assets was my work ethic, and Tim only helped that. He was the most talented player I had been around, but he worked incredibly hard. I can remember days in the off-season where he would throw with receivers until they were too tired, and then continue throwing for another hour or so after they left."
"I was glad to see how hard he worked, because I believe in hard work and sometimes the high profile guys take it easy, but he didn't. The other thing that stands out is that Tim was very confident in what he could do. He helped me build my confidence and develop a mentality as a quarterback that was invaluable. You better be confident on the field if you get under the center. Hard work only helps you believe in that confidence."
ASOB: Word on the street was that Hal Mumme didn't have anything at all to do with UK's defense. If true, do you think that adversely affected that 'Cat's defensive performance?
DB: "That is true from what I saw, but I don't think it adversely affected the defenses performance in the sense that I don't think Mumme could have added anything to our defense himself. However, as a head coach, it would have helped if he would have been as focused on having a good team, as he was a good offense."
"If we would have had a better defensive coordinator we could have definitely won some more game, in my opinion. I don't believe Mumme is like a coach (Rich) Brooks, who could coach every position on the field. Mumme knew only offense."
ASOB: Your leading receiver in 1999 was tight end James Whalen (90 receptions, 1,019 yards, 10 touchdowns). Compare, if you can, Whalen and former UK tight end Jacob Tamme.
DB: "Very similar. Both guys were a good size, over six-feet tall, and not too light, not too heavy. A lot of tight ends are used heavily in run blocking,and their bodies reflect that. James and Jacob could block, and block well, but they were definitely pass catching threats -- Too fast for linebackers and safeties, too big for corner backs. Both guys were very football smart. They knew how to get open, and caught the ball with their hands. Both were great players."
ASOB: UK averaged only 75.5 rushing yards-per-game in '99 (Anthony White led the 'Cats with 562 yards). Going back to 1946, that's the fewest rush yards-per-game UK has ran for in a single season. Do you think your passing numbers would have been even better if UK had rushed the ball more/more effectively?
DB: "Hard to tell. If we could have run it better we might not have thrown as often. But, the offense we ran had a lot of passes in it that were such short throws, it was almost like a running play."
"We used our passing game first, unlike traditional offenses that would use the run to set up the pass. All that said, Anthony White was one heck of a running back. He was great as a pass catcher, great as a runner. He wasn't the fastest guy on the field, but he had better hips than anybody else. He should definitely be remembered and recognized as one of the greatest backs in Kentucky history. And Derek Homer was the real deal, too. He had a different style than Anthony, but he was a fast and punishing runner."
ASOB: How influential was Tony Franklin on Hal Mumme's offensive decision-making?
DB: "Well, when I was here and playing, coach Franklin wasn't the offensive coordinator yet. Chris Hatcher, the quarterback's coach at the time was very influential, as he had played for Mumme (at Valdosta State), and they had a good relationship. But, Franklin was definitely a coach that was listened to by Mumme. Personally, I always felt like Franklin and Hatcher were the two that had Mumme's ear when it came to play-calling."
"Franklin and Hatcher are both GREAT coaches. And not only are they great at the football side of things, but they are both very fine people. I have much admiration and respect for both of those guys."
ASOB: You played in the '99 Music City Bowl against Syracuse, a 20-13 UK loss. I'm still convinced if James Whalen had not gotten hurt early in that contest, UK would have won the game. How big of an impact was Whalen's loss to UK's efforts that day?
DB: "I agree with you. If we don't lose Whalen, we don't lose the game. Our game-plan was to go with an empty backfield (five receivers) and get Whalen in a match-up with either a safety or a linebacker. Neither position could cover James, although Syracuse did put Keith Bulluck on him, and he did a respectable job, but not enough to stop James."
"Once he got hurt our plan was shot. I always felt that we should have had a plan B, just in case we needed it. But, sometimes Mumme would get locked-in or frustrated, and that's when he was not very good, in my opinion."
ASOB: How did Mumme prepare the team for the bowl game? Was it simply a continuation of the preparation you utilized during the course of the year, or did he alter your practice/game preparation routines?
DB: "The routine was changed a bit. The starters only watched film, and worked out one week, while the younger guys practiced all week with scrimmages and such. We tried some new things and stuck with those we felt would work, like the five receiver set."
ASOB: Coming off a tremendous redshirt sophomore season at quarterback in '99, what led you to transfer to Valdosta State for your final two years of eligibility?
DB: "It was simple: I was told by Mumme that I would have to compete for my job against Jared Lorenzen in the spring. I did, I won the job, and when I came back from a four week break in the summer, he (Mumme) sat me down and told me he was starting Lorenzen. I asked if I won the job on the field, and he said yes, but he was going to start Lorenzen anyway. So, I transferred."
ASOB: You won two consecutive Harlon Hill Trophy's while at Valdosta State. I'm assuming you hve no regrets regarding leaving UK.
DB: "I have no regrets as far as the decision I made. I had a wonderful time at Valdosta State, and made some wonderful friends and memories. Valdosta State is a great school, and I am very proud to be an alumni. But, believe me when I say I wish I would have never been put in that position (to leave). Leaving UK and all my very close friends was extremely tough on me. To this day, I still have dreams about being on the sidelines, begging to go in, and the coach saying no. I would have loved to play my last two years here and graduate from here, but I couldn't play for a coach I did not respect anymore."
ASOB: With UK sporting three serious starting quarterback candidates for the 2010 season, how do you see the UK quarterback situation shaking out next season? Do you have any wisdom you would like to impart upon the three QB candidates?
DB: "All I know is that there are three guys in the race that can get the job done. That will make the off-season workouts more competitive, passing in the summer more competitive, and will make all three guys better."
"The only widsom I would provide is to outwork the other two guys. At least that way, no matter what happens, you could say you gave it all you had."
ASOB: You were on the Atlanta Falcons roster in the 2003 season. Any thoughts on Michael Vick's talent?
DB: "Incredible talent. Horrible what he did to those dogs."
ASOB: You had a highly successful post-college football career, leading the Lexington Horsemen to the af2 Championship, as well as winning the af2 Most Valuable Player Award. Compare, from a quarterback's perspective, the differences in arena league football, and major college football.
DB: "Arena league is different in the fact that the field is just so much smaller. Decisions have to be made faster and guys that wouldn't necessarily be fast, or good enough to play defensive back in college, are all of the sudden a lot better on a small field. And the turf is awful. As far as the experience, nothing compares to college football in the SEC. Not even close."
I want to sincerely thank Dusty for agreeing to share his thoughts with A Sea of Blue.
For my, Tru, and pjordan's thoughts on the upcoming Music City Bowl game, as well as Wildcat football memories, please go to Wildcat Blue in a Sea of Orange. This is pjordan's excellent site. I highly recommending giving it a read.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!