Playmaker: James Onwualu brings versatility to Notre Dame’s defense
Renee Griffin | Friday, November 18, 2016
Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 14 edition of The Observer.
On Nov. 30, 2013, freshman receiver James Onwualu recorded his second collegiate pass reception, an 11-yard toss from Irish quarterback Tommy Rees during a 27-20 loss to Stanford. It was also his last reception.
On a cold, rainy October day one year later, sophomore linebacker James Onwualu lined up deep in Irish territory against the offense of then-No. 14 Stanford, which was up by one touchdown against then-No. 9 Notre Dame. Cardinal running back Kelsey Young took a handoff up the middle and shot through a hole in the line. Onwualu promptly leveled him with a pop loud enough to be heard on NBC’s broadcast.
Stanford turned the ball over three plays later, the Irish offense scored a game-tying touchdown before halftime and Notre Dame went on to win 17-14.
Onwualu said that play is one of his favorites of the past four years, though it came in just his fourth start at linebacker.
On Oct. 15 of this year, senior captain James Onwualu nearly doubled his career tally for pass breakups with three against Stanford. It wasn’t enough, as the Irish fell to the Cardinal, 17-10, but Onwualu had a career game with five tackles and a forced fumble in addition to the defended passes.
Those Stanford matchups highlight and encapsulate the Notre Dame career of the Saint Paul, Minnesota, native, who was recruited to the school as an “athlete,” having played running back, wide receiver and defensive back in high school.
He spent his freshman year at wide receiver, earning the starting spot in four games. In fact, entering 2016, Onwualu had the most starts of any receiver on the Irish roster.
Onwualu’s big hits on special teams 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-opener of 2014 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 Music City Bowl against LSU.
He continued to develop at the position as a junior, recording 38 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in 11 games. Now, with two games to go in his senior season, he has 60 total tackles, two sacks, nine and a half tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Onwualu said his progress at linebacker arises from 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 to lead by example. He said the honor of being named a captain comes with “great responsibility.”
“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 was 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 in the secondary.
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 helping to lead the Irish defense’s revival from 103rd earlier this year to 39th heading into Saturday’s game, it seems those front-yard training sessions paid off.