James Onwualu

Freshman Focus: James Onwualu


Hailing from the same high school as Michael Floyd, Ryan Harris and Rashon Powers-Neal, Cretin-Derham Hall looks to have been kind to the Irish football program again with the addition of wide receiver James Onwualu.

The early enrollee freshman jump-started his college career by joining the team for spring drills and immediately made his mark as a strong and powerful receiver that has the ability to play a hybrid role as a ball carrier as well.

Any comparisons to Floyd would be unfair and premature, but there’s a similar work ethic in Onwualu, who also brought his enthusiasm to the recruiting trail, barnstorming across the country to camps and combines, always working to help build the “Irish Mob.”

Let’s take a closer look at Onwualu.


The more talent evaluators got to see Onwualu, the more they liked him. As a guy that’s a bit of a tweener on the field, Onwualu doesn’t necessarily have the best top-end speed or measureables. But after working the camp circuit and playing a very impressive senior season, Onwualu worked his way up recruiting lists, ending up a highly respected four-star recruit by Rivals and a fringe top 250 player.

With an offer list that’s equally impressive, Onwualu committed to Notre Dame in March and turned down offers from a diverse list that includes Arizona, Cal, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Stanford, and UCLA.


There’s room on the field for Onwualu immediately, with only TJ Jones and Davaris Daniels proven commodities. After fifteen practices, the coaching staff raved about the freshman’s physicality, and even though Onwualu had never officially lifted weights before heading to South Bend, his work with a performance strength coach had him explosive and ready for the transition to college football.

Where Onwualu slots into the Irish offense should be interesting. He’s a bit of a Swiss Army knife, and could likely grow into a 230-pound guy after a few years in Paul Longo’s strength program. He could find himself as an outside receiver, but was often times at his best as a running back in high school. (Speaking to his high school coach, he thought Onwualu could be a great safety or hybrid OLB as well.)

With the Irish offense still looking to add playmakers in the passing game, Onwualu will likely see the field as a freshman. How big of an impact he makes? That’s the question.


The Irish know they got themselves a good leader and football player in Onwualu. Whether that translates to a guy that’s a special teams ace, explosive offensive weapon, or even a defensive player remains to be seen. How big Onwualu grows will play a part in where he ends up playing.

With the slot receiver position continuing to be redefined by the Irish’s personnel and schematic tweaks, using Onwualu as a jumbo sized Z receiver is an intriguing option and probably part of the reason Kelly and his offensive staff visited with Bill Belichick and the Patriots this offseason.

Developing in a elite high school program that provides college-ready players will help Onwualu early in his career. (So will the depth chart.) But how he evolves as a player will likely determine where he makes his mark on this roster.


Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”