Mentors helping Onwualu grow

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- If advice is needed, the list of resources is abundant. Several before James Onwualu have made the transition from Cretin-Derham Hall High School in Saint Paul, Minn., to Notre Dame.

A decade ago, former CDH running back Rashon Powers-Neal enjoyed success at ND. Ryan Harris was a coveted offensive lineman who started for four years for the Irish and is now in the NFL.

And there was another Cretin-Derham alum, a guy by the name of Michael Floyd, who owns Notre Dame’s record for career receiving yards (3,686) and touchdown receptions (37), and who now plays for the Arizona Cardinals.

So, it was posed to Onwualu, does one of the former CDH players that he occasionally taps into happen to play for the Cardinals?

“Yes,” Onwualu responded, “one of them does.”

Floyd, a first-round pick in the 2012 draft, is a player with whom Onwualu is extremely familiar. He’s watched him closely and tried to pilfer bits and pieces of his game.

“Yeah, a little bit. He’s pretty good,” Onwualu said. “I like to see if I can chase him a little bit and pick up things from his game of course.”

Floyd, however, isn’t the only player that Onwualu patterns his game after. Growing up in Minnesota, Onwualu had a close-to-home reference point, to an extent.

“I like different players, most of them from Minnesota, the Vikings,” the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Onwualu said. “But I just like to play like myself, play fast.”

That in turn has led to a fast track to the field, where Onwualu has earned meaningful minutes on offense, although he’s yet to corral his first pass. He also has had lots of time on special teams, where he’s recorded three tackles.

Onwualu, who enrolled at ND for the spring semester, which allowed him to participate in spring practice, set his sights on playing, in whatever role he could.

“I tried to do my best in everything I did, and my physicality and just my conditioning ended up (that) they’re giving me opportunities on special teams,” he said. “But I think it did the same as well for wide receiver.”

And it’s in the wide receiver room where Onwualu has watched and listened to senior TJ Jones. There have been a number of things Onwualu has picked up from ND’s leading receiver, perhaps nothing more so than the need for toughness.

“Overall wide receivers are looked at to be some of the softer people on the field but TJ definitely shows that it’s just the opposite. He gets hit a whole bunch in a game but he’s still sticking his head into plays, blocking for our running backs and doing everything he can when he doesn’t have the ball as well,” Onwualu said.

“I think the toughness that he shows coming back every week to play his best for the team is really unselfish. It makes him an even better player than he already is.”

Like Onwualu has noticed Jones, Jones in turn has noticed Onwualu, with whom he rooms on the road.

“James’ potential is through the roof,” Jones offered. “Not only can he run good routes and catch the ball, but he has the physical ability to be a physical receiver, whether it’s blocking or route-running. So for me, his possibilities are endless because he’s a guy who works hard and wants to get better.”

Onwualu insists he’s concerning himself not so much with numbers, rather with steady improvement.

“As long as I keep getting better each day I think my reps will come,” he said, “and I think I’ll end up being what the coaches want me to be.”

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South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN Wide Receiver James Onwualu (17) during public practice inside Loftus Sports Complex on Saturday, April 13, 2013, in South Bend.