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OU football: Once Florida hopeful Nik Bonitto’s ‘best decision’ shaped Sooners’ pass rusher ahead of Cotton Bowl battle with Gators

Nik Bonitto

Then-redshirt freshman linebacker Nik Bonitto looks at his phone in the locker room after the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Dec. 28, 2019. Bonitto has since changed his number from 35 to 11 and is on the tail end of a breakout 2020 campaign.

The smack talk had already started before Nik Bonitto took the podium for Cotton Bowl media day Dec. 22.

The Sooners’ starting redshirt sophomore rush linebacker hails from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida — the same tradition-rich football program that produced sophomore OU cornerback Jaden Davis. Oklahoma's athletics director Joe Castiglione and legendary Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin are among other notable alumni the school has cultivated.

Wednesday in the 2020 Cotton Bowl, Bonitto and No. 6 Oklahoma (8-2) will face more former Aquinas Raiders in linebacker Derek Wingo and athletes Kyle Engel and Coleman Crozier — all players for No. 7 Florida (8-3). Players Bonitto competed against at Aquinas also line the Gators’ roster — one being linebacker and American Heritage High School alumnus James Houston IV, who during media day said the Sooners “aren’t on our level.”

“It's definitely going to be fun seeing how much those guys have evolved since high school and just how well they're doing,” Bonitto said. “It's going to be good to see, and it's going to be a fun matchup.”

Aquinas currently has 11 alumni in the NFL — the most of any U.S. high school. Star defensive ends Joey and Nick Bosa, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and Las Vegas Raiders defensive backs Lamarcus Joyner and Damon Arnette will soon be accompanied by Florida receiver Trevon Grimes and Florida State defensive back Asante Samuel Jr., who both opted out of their teams’ bowls and declared for the 2021 draft.

Within a few years, Bonitto has the potential to join the list of Aquinas graduates in the pros.

After redshirting his freshman season and bouncing around different linebacker spots, Bonitto put himself on the map in 2019 with the game-sealing interception against Baylor in the Sooners’ largest comeback win in program history. Now, after settling in as Oklahoma’s top outside linebacker, he has flourished in his third year in Norman. Bonitto has tallied 29 total tackles this season and is second on Speed D with 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. The Associated Press and Pro Football Focus both named him an All-American and he was added to the Bednarik Award watch list for college football’s best defensive player.

Pro Football Focus has also given Bonitto high marks statistically, grading him as the third-best college pass rusher since 2014 behind only Ohio State alumnus Chase Young and Kentucky product Josh Allen. And of all Power Five conference defenders in 2020, Bonitto levied the highest quarterback pressure at a rate of 26 percent.

All the while, Harrison Tenzer, an OU student and good friend of Bonitto’s who used to be the Aquinas football team’s cameraman, has watched the former four-star prospect develop.

“Going to St. Thomas, I had the privilege of seeing all these kids go Division I,” Tenzer said. “But knowing (Bonitto) and being there for him and seeing how he's grown since he got to OU ... it's just really cool to see him grow as a player, because you can see it if you've known him long enough, especially since high school. And now (he’s) getting the recognition for it and he's still the same. … So that's one of the coolest things about Nik, is he hasn't really changed as a person despite now being one of the faces of the OU defense.”

Yet, just like Bonitto’s path to playing time — much less stardom — at OU was at first unclear, so was his college decision.

Bonitto revealed during media day that Florida had always been his “dream school.” He received an offer from the Gators while at Aquinas, but with the program transitioning from Jim McElwain and interim Randy Shannon to current head coach Dan Mullen, the direction of the program and prospects of playing time were too uncertain.

His finalists ended up being Oklahoma and Texas, a tough choice between rivals. Tenzer, who now lives in Austin when not in Norman, ultimately helped his friend decide.

“I was telling him OU, (Lincoln) Riley over (Tom) Herman, they’ll fix the defense eventually, it can't be this bad forever,” Tenzer said. “And he chose OU, and he's told me countless times it's the best decision he's ever made. And I can tell when he says that, I can tell he means that.”

Now, just days short of three years since Bonitto picked Oklahoma, he’ll play a pivotal role in a New Year's Six contest against the school he always thought he’d attend. This season, he’s become proficient at a technique called “mugging,” where he hovers as a quarterback spy before racing in as a secondary pass rusher.

Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s use of Bonitto to layer his pass rush Wednesday will be crucial to Speed D’s attack on Florida quarterback Kyle Trask — a Heisman Trophy candidate who has thrown for 4,125 yards and 43 touchdowns this season.

“Some guys have a better knack (for mugging) than others,” Grinch said. "The timing of it is critical. … That's one of the ways Nik has been a major piece to our defense this year.”

Regardless of the outcome Wednesday, Bonitto, Davis, Wingo, Crozier and Engel all will meet for an Aquinas team photo after the game. As crimson and cream uniforms clash with blue and orange counterparts, it might be fair to wonder what might’ve been had Bonitto ended up on the opposite sideline.

But while there might be a loyalty crisis for Tenzer — a lifelong Gator fan whose mother went to Florida — there won’t be any conflict for Bonitto.

“I always grew up a Gator fan,” Bonitto said. “I always wanted to go there since I was a kid. … But that was really in the past, and I'm an OU football player now.”

Mason Young is a sports enterprise reporter and senior journalism major who will graduate in May 2023. He was previously OU Daily's sports editor and has interned with the Tulsa World and the Detroit Free Press.

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