Leading by example: Onwualu grows into leader on defense for Notre Dame
Renee Griffin | Friday, October 14, 2016
Irish senior captain and linebacker James Onwualu has fond memories of Stanford’s last visit to Notre Dame Stadium.
From that cold, rainy day in October 2014, one moment specifically stands out to him: then-No. 14 Stanford, up by a touchdown against then-No. 9 Notre Dame, was deep in Irish territory late in the first half. Cardinal running back Kelsey Young took a handoff up the middle and burst through a hole in the line. Onwualu, who had yet to make a tackle that game, promptly leveled him with a pop loud enough to be heard on the television broadcast and draw shouts from the commentators.
Stanford turned the ball over three plays later, the Irish offense scored a game-tying touchdown before halftime and Notre Dame eventually went on to win 17-14.
Onwualu said that play might be his favorite that he’s made in his Notre Dame career — he described it as “pretty sweet” — though it came in just his fourth start at linebacker.
The Saint Paul, Minnesota, native was recruited as an “athlete,” having played running back, wide receiver and defensive back in high school. He spent his freshman year at wide receiver, catching two passes for 34 yards and earning the starting spot in four games.
Entering 2016, Onwualu had the most starts of any receiver on the Irish roster despite the fact that he hadn’t played the position in two years.
It was Onwualu’s big hits on special teams that made him consider a switch to the other side of the ball, he said. Head coach Brian Kelly granted his request, and the rest is history.
“I had some success on special teams,” Onwualu said. “Coach kept on talking about my physicality, so I just figured it was worth giving it a shot. I went to Coach and asked if I could get a couple practices to try it out, and maybe go both ways or just play defense, and it ended up working.”
By the time the season-opening game of his sophomore year rolled around, Onwualu was a starter at linebacker, playing alongside stars Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt. He recorded 24 overall tackles in the regular season, plus four more in the Pinstripe Bowl at the end of the season.
He continued to develop at the position as a junior, recording 38 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in 11 games. This season, he has 32 tackles and a sack, plus a fumble recovery against North Carolina State last Saturday. His two pass breakups this year equal his final 2015 tally in that category, and his five tackles for loss are only one fewer than he had in all of last season.
Onwualu attributed his progress at linebacker to an increase in confidence and comfort level this season.
“Through this year, I feel like I’ve found a bit more confidence,” Onwualu said. “I feel like I’m more comfortable with where I’m at, not only doing my job but making some plays.”
That confidence and playmaking allow Onwualu, now a team captain, to lead by example. He said the honor of being named a captain comes with “great responsibility,” but also that it’s something he enjoys and benefits from as well.
“It’s been fun just being the leader of this team and being around such great guys, and being able to teach them what I know, but also learn a lot from those guys,” Onwualu said.
The need for defensive leadership is especially high in 2016 following the unit’s dismal performance in the first few games of the season, leading to the firing of coordinator Brian VanGorder and the reliance on several inexperienced freshmen to fill some of the holes that opposing offenses have been able to take advantage of.
Whether the team is winning or losing, Onwualu said responsibility, effort and encouragement are what he focuses on when speaking as captain and trying to elevate the team’s morale.
“For me, it’s just holding guys accountable for the way they work … just making sure they’re working every single day to be on point and be the best players they can possibly be,” Onwualu said. “And when they do good things, it’s making sure to let them know that the things that they’re doing are helping them be successful, as well as just continuing to motivate some of the younger guys and not letting them get down on themselves.”
Onwualu said that the emphasis on hard work partially comes from what he learned playing with Smith and Schmidt.
“The things that I picked up from them is how to work every single day and how to carry yourself as a Notre Dame linebacker,” Onwualu said. “The work that you have to put in, the amount that you have to study the game and really take care of your body — all of those aspects, you learn from guys like that.”
While his predecessors at linebacker taught him what it meant to be a linebacker at the University, Onwualu credits his older brother with teaching him the life skills that allowed him to reach a collegiate field in the first place. Onwualu said it’s part of his game day ritual to text his brother and let him know that he’s the reason “why I’m fighting and playing that day.”
“My brother’s my best friend,” Onwualu said. “He’s the guy that kind of raised me in my life, and took care of me when I was a kid and always put me in situations I wanted to be in. He’s definitely my mentor. For me, he’s a brother, but he’s also a best friend and he’s also a father, and I wouldn’t be where I am without him.
“[Football] has always been a motivation for doing well in life: He was the one that always made me do my homework before I could go to practice and was training me out in the front yard.”
With Onwualu leading the Notre Dame defense’s attempt to make a statement against the Cardinal on Saturday — and perhaps aiming for a repeat of that bone-crunching tackle he remembers from two years ago — it seems those front-yard training sessions paid off.