Notre Dame LB James Onwualu excels in numerous roles

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — James Onwualu has never been just one thing.

In a dazzling prep career at Cretin-Derham Hall in Saint Paul, Minn., the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Onwualu starred as a wide receiver, running back and defensive back.

Since arriving at Notre Dame, he started four games at wide receiver in 2013, then eight more games after shifting to linebacker in 2014. He contributed, too, on every special teams unit imaginable — punt return, kick return, punt coverage, kick coverage, field goal block. You name it.

It’s a wonder, given his laundry list of responsibilities, that the athletic junior ever leaves the field.

“It’s a transition within the game,” Onwualu said of his work with special teams. “People kind of fall asleep sometimes during some of the special teams. But you have an opportunity to make a big play on a kickoff, start the game, set the tone for the second half — show them what’s coming for them.”

In a game defined by rigid positions, Onwualu rises above definition. Like graduate student defensive back Matthias Farley, he is uniquely adaptable.

Regardless of situation, Onwualu is constantly searching for the next available rep.

“It’s another rep to get better,” Onwualu said. “It’s another rep to help the team. It’s another rep to make a play.

“I think any competitor that cares about winning is willing to do anything. I’m not necessarily just honed in on my own personal game and what I can do to be the best player. I am, but the reason for that is so I can help the team.”

And indeed, Onwualu helps the Irish in a myriad of ways. Besides starting at strongside linebacker alongside seasoned veterans Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, his presence in an experienced coverage group will improve a unit that allowed an average of 23.4 yards per kick return in 2014, ranking 114th nationally.

At least, that’s the plan.

“I really am excited about what we’ve done in our special teams units and the work we’ve put in,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said this week. “I think we have a lot of veteran players on all of our running teams.

“I think we’ve got very good personnel there and there’s no reason why we can’t dictate terms in special teams and be very solid in special teams.”

Onwualu is hoping to be solid, too, at linebacker, where he has finally settled into an established role in Notre Dame’s second season under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, after finishing with 24 tackles and two tackles for loss as a sophomore.

Plus, having friends always helps.

“(Defensive tackle) Sheldon (Day) is going to be great, obviously,” Onwualu said with a grin. “He’s a great player. I think everyone knows it and you can’t really hide it. He’s going to be making a lot of plays, which makes a linebacker happy.”

If Day is indeed a force on the interior, KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke dominate on the outside, Isaac Rochell transforms into a superior pass rusher and Onwualu continues to develop with Schmidt and Smith on the second level, Notre Dame’s defense should be able to handle Texas — and everyone else.

And in the end, that’s the point of Onwualu’s many moves. It’s the willingness to adjust to succeed — the means to a glorious end.

Onwualu will play any role on the football field — truly, any role — as long as it carries his team one step closer to the summit.

“I’m ready to do whatever it takes to help the team win, and I want to win a national championship,” Onwualu said. “Really, anything I can do to help that — whether it’s special teams or playing linebacker — I’m willing to do it.

“We’ve worked extremely hard throughout the spring, throughout the fall,” he added. “We’re ready to make a statement.”

Notre Dame’s James Onwualu (17) walks Saturday, April 11, 2015, at Notre Dame spring football practice at LaBar Practice Complex in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ