Big and Skilled

Irish fans and followers don't view most wide receiver prospects as part of head coach Brian Kelly's unique "Big Skill" recruiting profile. But that's what rock-solid early enrollee James Onwualu brought to the table the moment he stepped on campus in January.

Behind every big run there's a perimeter block that made the final 40, 50, or 60-plus yards possible.

Cierre Wood's 62-yarder last October at Oklahoma? Daniel Smith and Tyler Eifert took out three players between them.

George Atkinson's 80-yard burst this season vs. the Sooners? Smith again, sealing Oklahoma safety Quentin Hayes to allow Atkinson a clear lane to the sidelines.

More prevalent than the big gains are the 10-15 yarders that ensure red zone ventures end in seven rather than an unacceptable three points. Invariably over the last two 18 games, whether it be for Theo Riddick vs. Oklahoma or USC, or for Cam McDaniel vs. Michigan State this fall, it was the 6'4" 215-pound Smith whose No. 87 continually appeared on film when Notre Dame's running backs found room to roam and score.

Smith played his last game for his hometown school Saturday night in Arlington, Texas, a broken ankle will sideline him for the season as a true senior who's eligibility has been exhausted.

In his stead steps freshman James Onwualu, who at 6'1" 213, has already shown his wares as a perimeter blocker for Brian Kelly's Irish.

"James is physically more developed than all of our freshman receivers, so he can go in there and carry a different load for our receivers," said Kelly. "We throw the ball while he's in there, sometimes he's not targeted, but a lot of the times James is in a more rugged role for us because physically he is far beyond a freshman in terms of his strength."

He was in there on McDaniel's aforementioned sweep for a score against Michigan State, clearing out the right side along with Smith and tight ends Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack. He was there for a Smith reception one week later, blocking the outside lane for his senior teammate to run for first-down yardage on a bubble screen. And with Smith lost, he'll be called upon often when the Irish employ their power packages.

"I think that reps are something you can look at as a benchmark, but I feel blessed to be able to do what I do on a daily basis," said Onwualu. "We have very talented players on our team. I think my reps will come as long as I keep getting better each day and I think i'll end up being what the coaches want me to be.

"But meaningful snaps…I'm not taking them for granted. But as an athlete I'm trying to push those limits."

Onwualu's emergence at wide receiver ended speculation the athlete might play safety or even running back in college. He has the frame to play multiple positions, and, most important that he's settled into one, to contribute heavily on special teams for the foreseeable future.

"I think my physicality and my conditioning ended up giving me an opportunity on special teams," said Onwulalu. "But I think I did the same as well for wide receiver."

Aside from paving the way for McDanie's score, Onwualu's early-career highlight is likely a de-cleating tackle on kickoff coverage vs. Oklahoma. His sprint and strike felled Sooners return man Roy Finch at the 12-yard line. Notre Dame scored on its next possession following an Oklahoma four-and-out possession.

"They were definitely both good moments," said Onwualu when asked to compare laying out an opponent vs. blocking for a teammate's score. He then admitted, "I had a lot of fun getting that tackle on special teams though."

Role Models Abound

Though Smith's role is the one Onwualu will likely fill -- and has emulated to date -- the true freshman has a pair of other Irish receivers, one present, one past, that have shaped his young career.

"I was partnering up with TJ (Jones) for a lot of things and he's my roommate when I travel," said Onwualu of the Irish senior captain. "Being around him since spring has helped me learn a lot of parts of the game that I didn't understand going into it. TJ does some things you can't really coach. He's a great player, I try to pick up as much as I can from him."

Onwualu's "other" onfield role model from under the Dome did a few things you can't teach as well, fellow Cretin-Durham High School product, Michael Floyd.

"Maybe I pick up a little bit (from Floyd), he's pretty good," Onwualu joked. "I like to see if I can chase him a little bit and pick up some things from his game. He's extremely busy. I don't like to bug him. I keep up with his games and try to watch him. He hits me up sometimes, but the time I really talked to him was before camp. He gave me an idea what I'm getting into and that helped."

What Onwualu is inevitably getting into now is more opportunity. The bye week came at an ideal time for a freshman poised for a larger work load.

"This week we can get our legs back a little, work on technique, work on some things we don't always get to focus on," he said of the week's practice without a game on the horizon. "Also getting some reps that I haven't always gotten. From the players' side, we're trying to focus on the little details, making sure that we do everything ordinary, correct. Make sure to do your job and fit your role."

At present, that role is to be the as physical as possible. The rest will follow.


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