Fearless Notre Dame LB James Onwualu makes presence known

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

James Onwualu seems to have finally found his spot.

Gone are the constant position changes that filled his first two seasons at Notre Dame. Now the 6-foot-1, 220-pound linebacker is trying to get his body to catch up.

Onwualu played wide receiver as a freshman then switched to safety last spring before settling in at outside linebacker for the 2014 season. He still is 10 pounds lighter than any linebacker currently on the roster and 15 pounds lighter than fellow returning starters Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt.

“Everybody wants to be bigger and faster,” Onwualu said after spring practice No. 6. “That’s something that I’m going to continue to get better at by staying in the weight room and working out with the guys. It will be a big time for me this summer, that period that we have off, to continue to get stronger. I’ll probably put on a couple more pounds.”

Onwualu, who played in all 13 games last season and started eight at linebacker, admitted he lost weight during the season. He has since learned the importance of maintaining his nutrition to keep himself at the size he needs to be on Saturdays.

Despite the lack of size, Onwualu made some of his biggest impacts in physical games. He recorded his season-high in tackles, five, against Navy. He also tallied four tackles each against LSU and Northwestern.

“I’m a physical guy,” Onwualu said. “I get by with not being scared to get into it. A little more strength might help. It really comes down to my mentality of being able to get into it.”

At the start of spring practice, head coach Brian Kelly described Onwualu as a nickel defensive back playing the Sam linebacker position. Adding size to the position behind Onwualu is sophomore-to-be Greer Martini, a 6-3, 240-pounder who showed promise at inside linebacker as a freshman. Martini will push Onwualu to become a more complete player if he wants to stay on the field.

Still recovering from a left hand injury suffered at the end of last season, Onwualu has to practice with a hard cast but shrugs off the idea that it’s limited him in any way. He said he is closing in on full health and jokingly called his cast a “new glove” that the equipment staff gave him.

A fearlessness gave Onwualu the chance to play in his first two seasons with the Irish. As a freshman, he essentially played as a designated blocking receiver in addition to a role on special teams.

“Just go hit the safety. Go hit the linebacker. I didn’t mind it at all,” Onwualu said. “It’s just natural. I’ve always been ready to go and get into it with whoever.”

The tougher part of the transition, Onwualu said, was seeing everything backwards from his normal viewpoint as an offensive player while still playing fast enough to be in a position to make plays. Onwualu’s offensive experience stretched back to his days playing wide receiver and running back at St. Paul (Minn.) Cretin-Derham Hall in high school. He signed with the Irish as a four-star receiver prospect.

“Everybody was like, ‘Yeah, you have the advantage of being on offense and understanding that,’ but it’s much different when you have (Irish wide receivers) C.J. (Prosise), Chris Brown or Amir (Carlisle) running straight at you,” Onwualu said. “You don’t really think of that as fast as they're moving.”

Working in pass coverage has been a major focus for Onwualu. At times, he was taken off the field for an extra defensive back in passing situations last season.

Developing a better rapport with the safeties behind him can increase his value. How he handles receivers near the line of scrimmage shapes the responsibilities of the secondary.

“I’m continuing to work with Max (Redfield) and (Elijah) Shumate to really make sure we’re on the same page with all our calls and then relaying those to the corner as well,” Onwualu said. “We’re getting much better at communication but continuing that process.”

If Onwualu can prove himself as a playmaker, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder may be more apt to leave him in the game. His position stability could allow for a more stable defense.

“I just want to continue to excel my game, continue to get faster, and work on my coverage skills when I’m open in space,” Onwualu said. “There were some opportunities last year that I could have made some big plays and missed those opportunities. So I’m really trying to capitalize on those opportunities this year and put myself in position to do that.”

tjames@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame's James Onwualu during practice on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN