Nik Bonitto felt like he might be ready to play in the NFL.
But he wasn’t quite sure he felt ready to leave Oklahoma.
“I still feel like I left a lot on the table personally,” Bonitto says.
Oklahoma’s fast-rising rush linebacker, who settled into his role and bloomed as a pass rusher over the second half of the 2020 season, will make a fine pro one day.
But there’s work yet to be done in college, Bonitto said.
“I want to be a perfectionist at everything I do,” Bonitto said Monday on a video press conference. “I feel like there’s still a lot of stuff in my game I’m trying to get better at. Still a lot of stuff in my game I’m trying to perfect. Definitely I need to hone in on that.”
Spring football practice, he said, is the perfect time to perfect his craft.
Bonitto, a 6-foot-3, 238-pound fourth-year junior from Fort Lauderdale, FL, played a more specific role last season as defensive coordinator Alex Grinch unleashed him as an edge rusher. In 2019, Bonitto played a more traditional outside linebacker role, and his numbers last season reflected the change: down in overall tackles from 43 to 32, up in tackles for loss from 6.5 to 10.5, and up in quarterback sacks from 3.5 to 8.0.
Those last two figures ranked second on the team behind versatile defensive lineman Isaiah Thomas.
Both players saw their roles altered when Ronnie Perkins came back at midseason. With Perkins’ unrelenting push on one side and Thomas’ consistency at multiple positions, Bonitto found himself in one-on-one situations down the stretch — and took advantage of it.
Pro Football Focus rated Bonitto as the top returning defensive linemen in all of college football. According to PFF metrics, Bonitto led all FBS edge defenders in pass rush grade (93.6), pass rush win rate (28 percent) and pressure rate generated (25.7 percent). Dating back through PFF’s seven years of collecting data, Bonitto’s grades rank top five in all three metrics.
And he’s not done yet. With Perkins off to the NFL, his role may change again — he may see more double-team blocking, for instance — so Bonitto is trying to grow his repertoire.
“As far as this spring goes, I’m trying to develop my game,” Bonitto said. “Trying to help the young guys that are just coming in, help them get accustomed to what we run here and stuff that we do at the rush position and just trying to be a better overall teammate and leader for everybody.
“That way, I can get a better version of Nik Bonitto for this upcoming season.”
Making the jump to the NFL, Bonitto said, “was definitely a real option. Just from having the talks with my parents, just telling them, giving them my opinion and then giving me their opinion. It was definitely a lot to think about.”
Three years of good game film is better than two, especially when Bonitto essentially played the position with two different purposes in 2019 and 2020. Scouts like what they’ve seen, to be sure, but having another season to evaluate will help them gather a more complete picture of the real Nik Bonitto.
Then there’s the team angle. Another year under Grinch means another year to climb the NCAA defensive rankings — another year to get back to doing what Oklahoma defenses are supposed to do. And, of course, another year to win the Big 12, get back to the playoff, and win a game — and then win another.
At a place like Oklahoma, 21 years is a long, long time between national championships.
“Obviously, we have lofty goals here,” Bonitto said. “Especially on our defense. But as a team, we want to get that last one. That’s really the goal going into this. Just getting better and try to get that last one.
“You can tell it was just a different vibe when we came back for spring workouts. We know this is the year. We have huge goals in front of us. Obviously we have to take it one step at a time but we definitely want to look at the end goal.
“I feel like as a team, we still have a lot to do as far as our goals. I feel like we can all accomplish that this year. That was definitely a big factor in me coming back and wanting to help my team and be a better leader for this team as well.”