James Onwualu embodies leadership, player development at Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Sundays at the Grotto have been the escape that has allowed James Onwualu to persevere.

When the demands of college football and the academic side of Notre Dame threatened to be too much, the senior outside linebacker would retreat to the solitude of one of the most precious spots on campus.

More than a few issues have been resolved in the soft glow of hundreds of candles.

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Irish captain is the face – even with his newly-minted mustache – of the kind of program coach Brian Kelly has tried to develop over the past seven years.

As Onwualu, who is from Saint Paul, Minn., prepares to play his final home game Saturday against Virginia Tech, he allowed himself to examine the ebbs and flows of a career that will be considered a ringing endorsement for believing in the system and trusting in the coaches.

Even one that got fired.

He endured two position changes – from receiver to safety, then from safety to outside linebacker – in his first couple years at Notre Dame. All the while, he was battling every athlete’s greatest foe: The lack of a comfort zone.

His mission was to find his way on the opposite side of the ball.

Not only was he able to carve a niche and contribute, but he has excelled.

He will leave Notre Dame as a proven leader and a productive linebacker (128 career tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 7 broken up passes, a fumble recovery and 2 forced fumbles), as well as a testament to the Kelly regime’s penchant for player development.

“(Onwualu is a) model of consistency, in terms of (someone) you can count week in and week out,” said Kelly. “There's a guy that not many people talk about. He's a guy that can do a lot of jobs for you. He's just been so valuable to us this year as a leader, too.”

Onwualu caught two passes as a freshman receiver in 2013. He spent the spring of 2014 learning to play defense, first at safety, but by the end of spring he was an outside linebacker. He made eight starts at linebacker in 2014.

“(One) of the difficult parts (of the transition) was just finding the confidence to jump into making a position switch,” Onwualu said. “I made that decision, and I and talked to coach (Kelly) about it. Who knows where I'd be if I didn't find the confidence to go and have that discussion and have confidence in myself to take on a challenge like that?

“That whole challenge was difficult. Then obviously this year has been a challenge as well just with our situation (4-6); but two great challenges that I've learned a ton from and wouldn't change.”

What advice would he give a young guy in a similar situation?

“I'd say more of just having confidence in the coaches,” Onwualu said. “They've been in the game for so long. I was questioning some things when I was switching positions, and it's difficult. It's a totally different way of the game and way to play. They know what they're doing and they're going to coach you to the best of their ability to make sure that you're performing for the team.”

Onwualu leaned heavily on defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder during that developmental process. That’s why VanGorder’s mid-season firing was tougher on him than most.

“Through that (developmental) time you're pretty much failing every single day,” Onwualu said. “I had never back-pedaled in my life; didn't know much about defense. To have somebody like coach VanGorder, who is working you through that process and continuing to give you confidence… You're learning this today and you've improved here, but also at the same time pushing you.”

“It was not an easy transition for him,” Kelly said. “James was… It wasn't that football was everything, you know, coming up for him. He was learning football, as well. He became a student of the game. (He) spent a lot of time in the film room and really I think he made himself into the player that he is.”

Onwualu said he didn’t grow up eating, sleeping and living the linebacker position like former Irish ’backers Jaylon Smith, Jarret Grace or Joe Schmidt.

“I had never hit a (blocking) sled,” Onwualu said laughing. “(Jarrett) was probably like 4-years old hitting the sled in his backyard. It was new. It was a different mentality.”

From last year to now, Onwualu said he’s gone from a “do-your-job” sort of guy to playing loose and flexible with the capability for making the big play.

All the while, he hasn’t taken any of his time at Notre Dame for granted.

“I try to once a week, just on Sundays, (to) go down to the Grotto,” Onwualu said. “(I) spend some time (thinking) about how lucky I am to be at a school like this and to have accomplished all that I did and have the opportunities that I have.”

Given the work and the effort Onwualu invested, luck was just a small part of the equation.

He’s the face of what Kelly’s program can be.

Notre Dame’s James Onwualu (1) celebrates a big stop during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, at Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN