Pro Day Notebook: Being student of game may give James Onwualu edge

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As reporters waited to interview James Onwualu following Notre Dame’s Pro Day, the former Irish linebacker had an extended conversation with Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

So what kind of questions did Patricia have for Onwualu?

“Patricia likes to ask exactly what our defense was doing on every single play,” Onwualu said.

No wonder the conversation lasted so long. A complex scheme may have played a large role in the inadequacy of Notre Dame’s defense under former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. But what became an issue that ended in VanGorder’s firing could benefit Onwualu in his search for an NFL job.

“I was with (former Irish defensive lineman and current Jacksonville Jaguar) Sheldon Day the other day,” Onwualu said. “He’s telling me, ‘Dude, you’re going to be good. It will take you a couple weeks to clean things up, but we learned a ton of different things.’ I shouldn’t say everything because obviously it’s a tough game to learn, but I definitely have a step ahead on learning somebody’s defense.”

Embracing discussions of Xs and Os with NFL personnel has become part of the process for the 6-foot-1, 228-pound Onwualu. Playing in the East-West Shrine Game in January, Onwualu estimated he met with 26 different teams. He keeps a list of the encounters in his phone in order to keep track of it all.

“I feel comfortable with having those conversations,” Onwualu said. “That’s one of my strong suits. Being able to talk a little ball.”

Football has been the primary focus for Onwualu since graduating in December. He’s been training with Proactive Sports in California alongside quarterback DeShone Kizer for the past couple of months.

A snub from the NFL Combine has only motivated Onwualu.

“Yeah, a little bit,” Onwualu said when asked if he was surprised to not receive a combine invite. “I trained and saw myself there. I obviously see myself as a pretty good linebacker, a pretty good player compared to a lot of guys that I see.”

Onwualu finished his career with 143 tackles and six sacks despite playing his entire freshman season as a wide receiver. The position versatility that he displayed at Notre Dame could make him an intriguing late-round option for teams.

Proving to be a linebacker who can succeed in pass coverage and find a role on special teams will likely be his path to success. Onwualu clocked a time of 4.73 seconds in the 40-yard dash on Thursday and worked through defensive back and linebacker drills.

“As a rookie, you want to be able to do as many things as possible,” Onwualu said. “Give them an opportunity for me to fill a couple different roles. I definitely push that. Being able to be that accountable player that I’ve been here, bringing it to the next level.”

Snapper for hire

Scott Daly couldn’t complete his NFL audition alone.

The former Irish long snapper needed someone to catch and hold his snaps at Thursday’s Pro Day at Notre Dame. Who better to be on the receiving end than his former holder, DeShone Kizer?

It’s not like Kizer, who was trying to solidify his projection as a first-round quarterback with a workout of his own, had anything else to worry about.

“He didn’t have to do what he did,” Daly said. “He had the weight of the world on his shoulders (Thursday), but I’m so glad he did really well and was able to help me out in the process too.”

Kizer gathered Daly’s snaps in punt and field goal formations before wrapping his day in Loftus Sports Center. The job wasn’t exactly taxing. As Daly has done hundreds of times in games and thousands of times in practices, he delivered the ball where it needed to be.

It seems like a routine that could become boring quickly.

Instead, Daly is hoping to make a living doing it.

“Honestly, I love it,” Daly said. “It’s a very high-pressure situation. You have to be perfect every single time, and that’s how I strive to be on the field and off the field in my everyday life.”

The 6-2, 248-pound Daly served as Notre Dame’s long snapper in each of his last 51 games. Any proof of his prowess would seem to be already on film. But Daly said his preparation for the NFL will go beyond simply snapping.

For instance, Notre Dame’s punt formation didn’t require him to do much, if any, blocking before releasing downfield. The traditional special teams lineups in the NFL will require a lot more physical responsibility.

“Being able to show you can move and be able to withstand a block and withstand a 300-pound guy coming down the gap, I have to do really well,” Daly said. “The biggest thing is snapping and blocking as opposed to just snapping in college where you can kind of get away with it. Having that combo is a difference maker.”

Despite the Detroit Lions of selection Baylor’s Jimmy Landes last year, a long snapper rarely finds a home during the NFL Draft. Daly’s fate will likely be determined as an undrafted free agent.

Yet Daly has as good of odds at sticking in the NFL for a long time as any of Notre Dame’s draft hopefuls. Former Irish long snapper J.J. Jansen is the proof. Jansen, who was signed by the Packers in 2008, has played the last eight seasons for the Carolina Panthers.

Folston’s future

Everything was on the table following the 2016 season for Tarean Folston.

The former Irish running back said on Thursday he gave consideration to all three possibilities this winter: returning to Notre Dame for a fifth season, transferring for his final year upon graduation or entering the NFL Draft pool.

Folston decided on a shot at professional football and finishing his Notre Dame degree this semester.

“I just thought it was the best opportunity for me,” Folston said. “Whether it was to stay in school or go somewhere, I just felt like this was the best overall decision and my family supported me.”

Folston’s career arc at Notre Dame took a dramatic shift when he tore his ACL in the season opener against Texas in 2015. He missed the remainder of the season and was limited to 77 carries for 334 yards and two touchdowns as a senior. In his first two season, Folston totaled 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns.

The 5-9, 199-pounder feels healthy, even if Pro Day “didn’t go exactly like I planned.” Folston’s best time in the 40-yard dash was clocked at 4.75 seconds. He’s out to prove that his talent can’t be captured in numbers.

“I really don’t think days like this can really show what a player can do,” Folston said. “But they like to see the testing and things like that.”

Recruiting visit

Notre Dame’s important recruiting weekend will carry into Saturday. A number of recruits who arrived on Friday will still be on campus.

But three-star defensive back Greg Newsome will be a noteworthy new face. The 6-foot-1, 170-pound product of Carol Stream (Ill.) Glenbard North said he will attend Saturday’s practice.

Newsome, a 2018 prospect, has not received an offer from the Irish, but his name has been popular with other programs in recent days. He reported new offers from Virginia Tech, Duke and Harvard earlier in the week.

Rivals ranks Newsome as the No. 30 safety in the 2018 class. 247Sports slates him as the No. 38 cornerback.


Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Outside linebacker James Onwualu makes a catch during Notre Dame football Pro Day Thursday, March 23, 2017, inside the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN