Notre Dame LB James Onwualu is the definition of an athlete

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Athletes make plays, plain and simple.

No matter the position. No matter the assignment. No matter the circumstances. Somehow, some way, the job will be completed.

In the context of the Notre Dame football team, where impressive specimens are the rule rather than the exception, James Onwualu is the textbook definition of an athlete.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound sophomore from St. Paul, Minn., has proven he can make an impact from just about anywhere.

Onwualu (pronounced on-wah-lu) is a rare commodity. He plays on all four special teams — kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage and punt return.

He started his career at Notre Dame as a receiver last season, catching two passes for 34 yards. Once Daniel Smith was injured, Onwualu assumed the role of the “muscle” that was used for downfield blocking in run situations.

Irish coaches were impressed with the physical nature with which he approached special teams, as he recorded six tackles. That was evidence he could flourish on defense.

Last spring, through the first couple practices, Onwualu was given an audition at safety. The need, though, was much greater at outside linebacker. It takes an athlete to play that position, which made Onwualu a perfect candidate.

“His toughness and just his demeanor, the way he played the game (made Onwualu an option at linebacker),” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “We probably saw it on special teams more than we saw it as, per se, a blocker and a wide receiver. We just saw a guy that had that innate ability to attack and shed blockers and, again, play the game in a manner that we felt like defensively it would be worth taking a look at.

“Now, we weren't absolutely certain, but that's why we took a look at him in the spring. (Defensive coordinator) Brian (VanGorder) had a great chance to evaluate him and say yea or nay, and when we got the chance we took it.”

The move paid off last week against Rice. Onwualu played his new position well, coming up with three tackles. One stop, on special teams, was more impressive than the others. He diagnosed the Owls’ attempt at a fake punt and snuffed it before it had a chance to work.

“We go through all the (fakes) every week,” Onwualu said. “Being on special teams last year, I’ve seen a lot of teams’ fakes on film. Coach (Scott) Booker gets us ready for that.

“We had seen some things. I kinda knew it was coming. It still came as a surprise, so I just went for it.”

In other words, Onwualu made a play.

That response to the threat of the fake was pivotal in Onwualu being selected as Notre Dame’s special teams player of the week. The winner of the award is given dog tags.

“I played special teams all last year and didn’t get (the award) once, which shows how many guys are working hard,” Onwualu said. “I was really excited. Those dog tags are on my nightstand now.

“I love playing special teams. You can just run down the field and make plays. That’s the most fun part of the game.

“That first play… That song (“Here Come the Irish,” just before kickoff) comes on and the crowd’s going crazy...”

While he continues the learning process at outside linebacker, Onwualu will likely be a significant part of the Irish defensive scheme against Michigan Saturday night.

The Wolverines can change their offense, which would affect Onwualu. There are times when they like to spread the field and open it up. That makes Onwualu’s ability to play in space very important. If Michigan packs it in using two tight ends and/or a fullback, Ben Councell (6-4, 254) would likely get more snaps in a physical game.

Whatever the case, Onwualu is up to the challenge.

“You can see certain things coming, and know different formations and tendencies in different formations, but there are linemen coming this way and this guy’s moving this way…,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything like that before. It’s totally different.

“I’m still trying to get to that point (of playing fast). I don’t feel like I’m fast enough. There’s always room for improvement. For a while, I was a little slower than I should have been. It took me a while (to recognize) the formation.”

“You saw last year on special teams, (Onwualu) had that physicality,” said inside linebacker Jaylon Smith, who played that outside position last season. “That’s the biggest thing. You have to bring that physical mentality every play. It’s something that he had ingrained into him. That’s why he made the move. It was really just hounding on him that he did his job.

“The biggest thing I probably helped him with was the view of the game — looking at it from the outside in. I played it last year. I helped him with his vision and understanding the principles of outside linebacker.”

“(Onwualu is) a very interesting young man,” Kelly said. “He wants to know that he has a chance to play. If he has a chance to play, he just wants to get on the field. He didn't ask about whether it was for a short term or a long term. All he wanted was an opportunity. That's just the kind of player he is. He doesn't get caught up in all of the minutia, of, ‘Well, am I going to be here and get moved? Where did you want to play me, coach? Show me the meeting room.’ He's a fun guy to coach.”

“I’ve always been ready to play whatever helps the team,” Onwualu said.

Takes a special athlete to have an attitude like that.

Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu, a wide receiver last season, has adapted quickly to his new role. (SBT File Photo)