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Irish A-to-Z: James Onwualu

Aug 5, 2014, 12:42 AM EDT

Oklahoma v Notre Dame Oklahoma v Notre Dame

Sophomore James Onwualu was one of three freshman wide receivers to contribute during 2013, a debut season that had Notre Dame’s pass-catching depth chart looking promising for years to come. But in one of the surprises of the spring, Onwualu switched to the defensive side of the ball, a new safety/linebacker hybrid for Brian VanGorder to utilize in his sub-happy scheme.

Shifting from safety to linebacker, spring was spent spent getting up to speed as Onwualu learned a new position. But after successful switches for special teams aces Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth, and Matthias Farley also moving successfully from wide receiver to defensive back, the physicality Onwualu showed as a freshman made the move a natural one.

Let’s take a closer look at the St. Paul native.

 

JAMES ONWUALU
6’1″ 220 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 17

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Onwualu hails from Notre Dame pipeline Cretin-Derham Hall, and while he wasn’t the level recruit that Michael Floyd or Ryan Harris was, Onwualu was no slouch. A four-star prospect according to Rivals, Onwualu had offers from Michigan and Ohio State (among others), but locked things down early in March when he committed to the Irish.

From there, Onwualu became an early leader in the recruiting class, helping to grow the “Irish Mob” before enrolling in January, the first CDH athlete to ever graudate early. Kelly talked about the versatility in Onwualu’s game on Signing Day, perhaps a sign that this move was always in the back of the staff’s mind.

“This is a very talented player, very talented,” Kelly said on Signing Day. “If you watch him work out ‑ I know Coach Longo has got our guys in there already ‑ really love his athletic ability.  Versatile player, he’s going to be on the offensive side of the ball, but if we ever got into a bind he certainly could play defense, as well.”

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in all 12 regular season games, making four starts. Caught two passes for 34 yards. Also contributed on special teams, making six tackles on the year.

 

UPSIDE POTENTIAL

While he’s not long and isn’t necessarily the fastest player, Onwualu has great quickness and extreme physicality. He used that as a blocker at wide receiver, and it’ll come in handy as an underneath cover man who will also hold up just fine in the trenches. After seeing linebackers like Prince Shembo and Carlo Calabrese struggle to cover in space, having a wide receiver who started four games at linebacker is an asset that didn’t exist the past few years.

That said, it’s difficult to read too much into the cameo Onwualu had this spring on defense, but fall camp will give him an opportunity to earn a job playing outside linebacker, a starting role that would’ve been tough to imagine Onwualu having on offense, unless it was in a Daniel Smith-like blocking capacity.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If Brian Kelly moves you from offense to defense, there’s usually a good reason. And history has shown the results to work quite well. Onwualu is on track to get into the mix immediately at linebacker, and he’s a productive football player, whether on offense, defense or special teams.

While Onwualu started his career at wide receiver for the Irish, he played everywhere in high school, catching passes, carrying the load and doing whatever else was asked of him. While he was his conference’s leading scorer, his high school head coach Mike Scanlan always thought he could be a very versatile weapon on the defensive side of the ball.

After one season as a receiver, we’ll see what VanGorder does with Onwualu, who should be able to find a specific role in the Irish defense and become an important piece of the puzzle in 2014.

 

***

The Irish A-to-Z
Josh Atkinson
Nicky Baratti
Alex Bars
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Justin Brent
Kyle Brindza
Chris Brown
Jalen Brown
Greg Bryant
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Amir Carlisle
Austin Collinsworth
Ben Councell
Scott Daly
Sheldon Day
Michael Deeb
Steve Elmer
Matthias Farley
Tarean Folston
Will Fuller
Everett Golson
Jarrett Grace
Conor Hanratty
Eilar Hardy
Mark Harrell
Jay Hayes
Matt Hegarty
Mike Heuerman
Kolin Hill
Corey Holmes
Chase Hounshell
Torii Hunter Jr.
Jarron Jones
DeShone Kizer
Ben Koyack
Christian Lombard
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Nick Martin
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Cam McDaniel
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
Kendall Moore
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Romeo Okwara

  1. sfnd - Aug 5, 2014 at 1:22 AM

    Showing that CDH love!

    The A-Z series continues to be a welcome addition to the summer routine. Let’s see if Kieth can maintain the quality as the starts the Top 25 Countdown.

    Not much sleep in the Arnold house these days.

    • dickasman - Aug 5, 2014 at 3:11 AM

      Good thing about being a former druggie is that you forget things and old news is new news again. Completely forgot about the switch! And I’m not talking bout no switch they do in thailand

  2. seadomer - Aug 5, 2014 at 4:16 AM

    Just saw the new practice video twice …. Man that number 13 on offense is getting me pumped up. Nite all.

    • tburke9601 - Aug 5, 2014 at 9:13 AM

      Did anybody else notice all the grabbing of the jersey’s by the DB’s? Gonna be a lot of yellow on the field if they do that during the season.

  3. knuterocknesghost - Aug 5, 2014 at 7:45 AM

    In his post practice press conference on the practice field yesterday, BK was asked by a reported about Will Mahone’s return. BK said WM is looking at “other options.”

  4. mattymill - Aug 5, 2014 at 10:53 AM

    Sometimes a position switch brings an eyebrow raise from fans, but with BK’s history of successful position switches, he has gained my trust (because I’m sure that concerns him!). At UC, he took a 3 yr backup TE Conner Barwin, moved him to DE and he was a 2nd round draft pick the following year. Troy Niklas, Bennet Jackson and Keivarae Russell are successful position moves while at ND. I could really see Onwualu thriving on the defensive side of the ball, especially with 3 yrs to improve.

  5. fnc111 - Aug 5, 2014 at 5:51 PM

    This cat has some shoulders on him. I want to see him bury Devin Gardner in the field turf.

  6. 4horsemenrideagain - Aug 6, 2014 at 9:44 AM

    onwualu just looks and moves like a football player. it may sound like a dumb observation, but if you see him close on the ball carrier, move laterally or initiate contact on a tackle, all the movements look like second nature, especially the hitting part. it wouldn’t surprise me to see him add another 10 or 15 pounds but keep his speed and quickness and turning out to be a fixture on the defense while continuing to be a special teams monster.

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