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