Keith Arnold

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Blake Frohnapfel #7 of the Massachusetts Minutemen is sacked by James Onwualu #17 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish
at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Irish A-to-Z: James Onwualu

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After quietly putting together a strong junior season, James Onwualu is ready to step to the front. Gone are captains and fellow linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt. So are front-seven companions Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day.

One of the few veterans with any considerable experience on the defense, it’s up to Onwualu to lead now, making an impact both by the example he sets on field and by the work he puts in off of it. With the chance to play full-time at outside linebacker, Onwualu should add nickel and dime snaps to his repertoire, allowing the former receiver to excel when the opposing team drops back to pass, as either a pass rusher or coverman.

 

JAMES ONWUALU
6’1″, 232 lbs.
Senior, No. 17, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit who Notre Dame offered before any of the other major programs, Onwualu picked the Irish over Michigan and Ohio State, enrolling early out of Cretin-Derham Hall.

A big-bodied wide receiver without elite speed, Onwualu’s transition to defense was always something that was a possibility, made even more impressive by the fact that he found a way to start four games at wideout as a freshman.

 

PLAYING CAREER 

Freshman Season (2013): Played in all 12 regular season games, making four starts. Caught two passes for 34 yards, while contributing on special teams making six tackles. Served mainly as a blocker at wide receiver, taking Daniel Smith’s job.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in all 13 games while starting eight at linebacker. Made 24 tackles from his outside linebacker position, including two TFLs. Onwualu had seven stops against Navy, including his two TFLs on the season.

Junior Season (2015): Played in 11 games, starting nine at outside linebacker.  Made 38 tackles including six TFLs and three sacks, also breaking up two passes and forcing one fumble. Missed time with an MCL sprain in November.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Smith stayed at Will and Onwualu spent his time at SAM, though it was Greer Martini who made most of the impact against option teams, not Onwualu.

I think Jaylon Smith spends a lot of time on the outside of this defense, making me wonder where Onwualu plays. But I also think that the more opponents move quickly and try to spread Notre Dame out, the more likely Onwualu is a piece of the defensive puzzle.

It’s worth noting that Onwualu’s most productive game was against Navy. You don’t expect an undersized linebacker to be great against the option, especially after Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder talked about utilizing Greer Martini as a jumbo-sized OLB against more rugged opponents.

Still, it’s a telling indicator that Onwualu has the Football IQ to make tackles in the backfield against Navy. And after an unlikely ascent into the starting lineup in each of his first two seasons in South Bend, you’d be wise not to bet against a football player who has shown himself to be a productive piece of the puzzle.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s room to grow this season for Onwualu, likely very comfortable in his third season under Brian VanGorder. As the only returning starter at linebacker, how much this defense leans on him will be telling. A knee injury limited him down the stretch, but he still platooned, especially against the more physical offenses.

Adding some mass to his frame is important. We’ll see how well he did when the roster is released later this week, with Onwualu ideally in the 235-pound range, up from the 220 he played last year at.

The Irish coaching staff believes Onwualu is underrated, mostly because of off-the-radar skills like rerouting receivers. If this senior season is going to be impactful—and if Onwualu wants a chance to play at the next level—he’s going to have to build on the sneaky-solid numbers he put up, making more plays behind the line of scrimmage and in coverage.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

One of my hunch picks for team captain, Onwualu is one of my breakout candidates this season—if he can stay healthy. With added strength this offseason and a better understanding of everything Brian VanGorder wants, Onwualu should be one of the team’s top-three tacklers by season’s end.

A better pass rusher than given credit for, Onwualu might be a sleeper candidate for a half-dozen sacks, a big number to be sure, but maybe not unattainable when you consider he had three last season in limited opportunities. Add in a few interceptions and filling up the stat sheet would be a great way to finish a career.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara

 

Counting Down the Irish: 15-11

Crawford BGI
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As we continue our ascent to the top of Notre Dame’s roster, our next five members of the Top 25 play unique roles—all indicative of the talent on Brian Kelly’s seventh team.

Two young players capable of emerging as stars. Two once-heralded recruits stepping into critical roles. And a likely team captain fully transformed after an early-career position switch.

As has been the case with the list so far, there’s little from an on-field performance perspective to validate what we anticipate. But the talent in this group is undeniable, making these projections less about speculation than finally earning an opportunity.

 

2016 Irish Top 25 Rankings
25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Soph.)
24. Durham Smythe (TE, Sr.
23. Justin Yoon, (K, Soph.)
22. Tyler Newsome (P, Jr.)
21. Daniel Cage (DT, Jr.)
20. Sam Mustipher (C, Jr.)
19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Soph.)
18. Max Redfield (S, Sr.)
17. CJ Sanders (WR, Soph.)
16. Drue Tranquill (S, Jr.)

 

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Blake Frohnapfel #7 of the Massachusetts Minutemen is sacked by James Onwualu #17 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

15. James Onwualu (OLB, Senior): After spending last season playing the majority of snaps in a platoon with Greer Martini, our panel believes that Onwualu’s final season in South Bend will be his best. The former wide receiver has fully transformed his body into that of a linebacker, but still retains the athleticism that should allow him to be excellent in space and in coverage.

Onwualu was Notre Dame’s fourth-best defensive player according to PFF College, grading out at +7.4. With Martini capable of spending time at Will linebacker, Onwualu’s production could go up along with his snap total.

Highest Rank: 12th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (two ballots).

 

South Bend Tribune

14. Alex Bars (RT, Junior): There’s a lot of belief in Bars, who’ll fill left tackle Mike McGlinchey’s shoes on the right side. It’s a move that took more of spring to finalize than some expected, mostly because Bars was still recovering from a broken ankle he suffered against USC.

Brian Kelly has raved about Bars in the past. He certainly looks the part of a high-level offensive tackle, a former elite recruit entering his third season in the program. But this is clearly a projection. He’s played roughly 150 snaps in his college career—all at right guard.

Notre Dame’s depth chart requires Bars to play on the edge. Our panel thinks he’s ready. We’ll see soon enough.

Highest Rank: 9th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot).

Alize Jones Temple

 

 

     

13. Alizé Jones (TE, Sophomore): Jones led all Irish pass catchers not named Will Fuller in yards per catch, a very nice datapoint for those expecting the former blue-chip recruit to take a giant leap forward in 2016. Add to that his cross-training at receiver as a replacement on the boundary side of the formation, and Jones is poised for a huge breakout.

Jones isn’t the physical mismatch that Tyler Eifert was. But he very well could be used like Eifert was in 2012, strategically moved around and mostly detached to get a mismatch down the field. If that’s the case, expect Jones’ numbers to more than multiply, with some red zone targets also a certainty with Corey Robinson gone as well.

Highest Rank: 4th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot).

 

Shaun Crawford Josh Adams

12. Shaun Crawford (DB, Sophomore): After an ACL injury ended his freshman season in training camp, Crawford returned this spring dead set on making up for lost time. He looked like the same player who was penciled into the starting nickel job, and might be too good to take off the field, possibly lining up opposite Cole Luke.

Even with a non-contact jersey on in the Blue-Gold game, Crawford was making plays everywhere. He’s undersized, but plays with a physicality that makes you ignore his height. With speed and athleticism to cover slot receivers and the confidence to play on the outside, that our panel pegs him as one of the back-seven’s best playmakers certainly says something.

Highest Rank: 7th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot).

 

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08: Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

11. Nyles Morgan (MLB, Junior): For a linebacker who couldn’t get on the field last year, this panel was certainly bullish when evaluating Nyles Morgan. The Chicagoland product steps into Joe Schmidt’s middle linebacker job ranked no lower than 17th on any ballot, with the expectation being Morgan won’t miss a beat in 2016.

From a productivity standpoint, it feels like a lock that Morgan will be one of the team’s leaders. But after watching Morgan understandably struggle with the mental demands of the position as a true freshman, we’ll find out if last season’s watch-and-learn approach pays dividends.

Highest Rank: 8th. Lowest Rank: 17th.

 

***

Our 2016 Irish Top 25 panel:
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Eric Murtaugh, 18 Stripes
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John VannieNDNation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
John Walters, Newsweek 

Irish A-to-Z: Julian Okwara

Julian Okwara
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Following his brothers footsteps to Notre Dame, Julian Okwara might play the same position as his brother Romeo, but he brings with him a different skill-set to South Bend. If Romeo’s game was power and physicality, Julian’s is built on speed and athleticism.

Those traits are what had the Irish staff excited about bringing another Okwara into the program—and are much needed as Keith Gilmore and Brian VanGorder try to figure out their pass rush.

An edge player who could play either linebacker or defensive end, Okwara will add more athleticism to the front seven.

 

JULIAN OKWARA
6’4″, 216 lbs.
Freshman, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A consensus 3-star prospect, Okwara was a first-team All-State performer who had offers from some elite programs in the Southeast, picking Notre Dame over Clemson, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

He played in the Carolina’s Shrine Bowl after a standout senior season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Offers from top programs make Okwara less of a developmental target than Romeo. And one look at his game tape and you’ll see that there’s plenty of speed and athleticism coming from Okwara, who should have a head up on his brother thanks to his years around the sport and his exceptional quickness.

While it was Romeo that bounced between linebacker and defensive end, Julian’s skills make him better suited to play both in space and off the edge, a capable athlete who looks comfortable at linebacker as well as defensive end. Notre Dame thinks he’s a defensive end from the start, with pass rush skills that could help the team quickest.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Will an Okwara be able to redshirt in South Bend? I say yes. That would’ve been helpful for Romeo, who played as a 17-year-old freshman still learning the game. It will be helpful for Julian as well, though he could help chase down quarterbacks if he’s able to specialize in certain packages.

But for Okwara to do that, he’ll need to move ahead of fellow classmate Daelin Hayes and find playing time over veteran options like Andrew Trumbetti. The better move would be to spend the season getting bigger with Paul Longo and then see what the defensive front looks like with Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell graduated.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji

 

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Adetokunbo Ogundeji

Ogundeji247
247 Sports
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Freshman defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji will be a handful for beat writers and fans, thanks to a name that could singlehandedly win you a Scrabble game. The Irish coaching staff hopes he’s the same type of handful for opposing quarterbacks.

Looking to find some pass rushers to come off the edge of Keith Gilmore’s defensive line, Notre Dame identified Ogundeji early, who walked away from a commitment to Western Michigan as bigger schools came calling the summer before his senior season. But after a visit to South Bend in June, the Michigan native pledged to the Irish staff just weeks later, an important piece of the puzzle for an Irish recruiting class desperate for edge rushers.

 

ADETOKUNBO OGUNDEJI
6’5″, 215 lbs.
Freshman, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A three-star recruit, Ogundeji had offers from Oregon, Cal, Purdue and Pitt before committing to Notre Dame. ESPN ranked him as Michigan’s No. 11 player in the state. He’s a developmental prospect if there ever was one, but certainly has “RKG” status after being praised for his character and work off the field.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

He’s a long, lean and impressive looking pass rush prospect. Ogundeji wears size 18 shoes and Keith Gilmore talked about his gigantic hands, so there’s a clear amount of projecting being done here.

But you’re not turning on the high school tape and seeing a dominant edge player yet, so Gilmore is going to need to build one—along with Paul Longo who has already spent the summer adding some meat to the bones of a guy who still looks like a basketball player.

That said, Notre Dame’s roster lacks defenders with this body type, especially on a line that’s heavy on two-gappers and swing players. Ogundeji was born to be an edge rusher, and adding him to the program immediately addresses a roster deficiency.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

This feels like a redshirt situation. With Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti likely sharing the snaps at weakside (and don’t forget Daelin Hayes), Ogundeji seems a long way from being ready to contribute. So while there could be a terror off the edge developing, it’ll take a few years.

Looking back at developmental recruits at defensive end, the Irish haven’t had the best of luck. But Ogundeji has a few things going for him other than his physical traits—mainly a academic profile that lends itself to Notre Dame.

A good gamble to take, but he’s a wait-and-see freshman. Let’s put a pin in this until spring time.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome

 

Counting Down the Irish: 20-16

C.J. Sanders CJ Sanders
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If our first five members of the Top 25 were specialists or breakout candidates, our next five players are critical components. If Notre Dame is going to have a special season, it’s because these five players all lived up to expectations.

All five are expected starters. Four have already played key roles for the Irish, two as true freshmen. The last replaces a team captain, a veteran with high expectations from the staff and our panelists alike.

 

Five projected starters. All with sky-high expectations. The Top 25 is heating up.

 

2016 Irish Top 25 Rankings: 
25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Soph.)
24. Durham Smythe (TE, Sr.
23. Justin Yoon, (K, Soph.)
22. Tyler Newsome (P, Jr.)
21. Daniel Cage (DT, Jr.)

 

Sam Mustipher 247

20. Sam Mustipher (Center, Junior): Replacing second-round draft pick Nick Martin, Mustipher earned praise from Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand this spring, a hard-nosed grinder who comes from the old-school mold at center. Mustipher is powerful, athletic and at home in the trenches.

Strong enough to hold his own against nose guards and quick enough to get to the second level, Mustipher has already earned praise for his Football IQ and quick grasp of the position. He’s also lining up next to All-American candidate Quenton Nelson, who’ll certainly have his back as he breaks into the starting lineup. Mustipher has the chance to be a three-year starter at center.

Some think Mustipher is ready to step in and dominate. Five voters left him off the ballot all together.

Highest Rank: 12th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (five ballots)

 

Jerry Tillery 247

19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Sophomore): Tillery very nearly became the school’s first true-freshman starter at defensive tackle entering 2015, but ended up sharing time with Daniel Cage as the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to replace Jarron Jones after a training camp knee injury.

That Tillery held his own in the trenches was impressive. But he didn’t thrive, just 12 tackles in as many games on the season.

One of the only healthy bodies in the front seven as the Irish prepared for the Fiesta Bowl, Tillery got himself sent home from Scottsdale, a disappointing finish to an otherwise nice freshman season. Perhaps that’s why this group isn’t all that bullish on a player both teammates and staff acknowledge has elite physical traits and skills.

Capable of sliding into Sheldon Day’s job, let’s see if the lightbulb turns on for Tillery this fall, as the defensive line needs him to take a big leap forward as a sophomore.

Highest Rank: 8th. Lowest Rank: 25th

 

Redfield 247

18. Max Redfield (Safety, Senior): Gifted with an NFL set of tools, all Max Redfield needs to do is prove he’s got the right toolbox. Last season was a step in the right direction for Redfield, though there was still too much inconsistency in his game.

Injuries played a part in that. Redfield ended up with a cast on his hand after playing well against Texas. He was held out against Georgia Tech’s option and pulled against Navy’s early after a missed assignment went for six points. Cap off the season with a bowl-week suspension against Ohio State and it was an underwhelming junior year for a safety some projected ready to breakout as an All-American.

True freshman Devin Studstill pushed Redfield this spring and will continue to do so during fall camp. That could be a motivational tactic or it could be a sign that the Irish staff is ready to turn the page. The former is more likely, as Redfield is a critical part of the plans for the Irish secondary.

 

Highest Rank: 12th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (two ballots)

 

C.J. Sanders CJ Sanders

17. CJ Sanders (WR, Sophomore): Only the third player in Notre Dame history to return a punt and kickoff for a touchdown in the same season, Sanders is also the Irish’s best option at slot receiver—if he’s healthy.

Sanders missed the majority of spring practice with a hip injury, a significant recovery timeline that kept him rehabbing well into the summer. But the Irish staff was optimistic as Sanders recovered ahead of schedule, giving him a chance to enter fall camp with a green-light and ready to compete for more than just special teams work.

With elite speed and change of direction skills, Sanders will bring an added dimension to the offense while continuing as the team’s primary return man. But he’ll need to prove he’s healthy first.

Highest Rank: 12th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot)

 

Tranquill

16. Drue Tranquill (Safety, Junior): Tranquill’s breakout game against Georgia Tech ended in misery as he tore his ACL celebrating a pass breakup just before halftime. It was his second major knee injury in a half-dozen games, tearing his other ACL against Louisville the previous November.

A workout warrior, Tranquill once again proved himself to be a recovery master. He was on the field participating in spring practice, two knee braces hardly holding up the jumbo-sized safety who is penciled into the starting lineup at strong safety as Elijah Shumate’s replacement.

A tackling machine who is at his best coming down into the box in run support, Tranquill is a key piece for Brian VanGorder. The versatile defender can play in multiple sub-packages and can blitz, cover and defend the run. He just needs to prove he can stay healthy.

Highest Rank: 8th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot)

 

***

Our 2016 Irish Top 25 panel:
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Eric Murtaugh, 18 Stripes
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John VannieNDNation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
John Walters, Newsweek