"I didn't know where Jaylon (Smith) went to be honest," said Onwualu of his fellow outside 'backer's quick jaunt to the bench to deal with a dislocated finger. "So I was getting yelled back to come back on, (middle linebacker) Joe (Schmidt) was yelling at me to come back on. So I ran out there and just figured it out."
"It" is the will linebacker position. Albeit for just three plays, it's remarkable nonetheless that a neophyte to the defensive side of scrimmage could be thrust into action to play the weak side while he's still learning the strong side.
Remember, Onwualu started three games at wide receiver last season and began the spring as a safety. ("I'm learning all the positions," he joked.)
"Coach (Brian) VanGorder is all about learning schemes so you understand what everyone else is doing. That's why we watch film together, the whole defense watches film together every day. You're learning what Jaylon is doing, Joe, the corners. It's easy to pick up and play when you're needed."
With a stocked stable of wide receivers, Onwualu was needed on defense. His efforts on special teams last fall made it evident he could handle the physical demands. His approach to football, school, and life in general took care of the rest.
"He's a very interesting young man," offered head coach Brian Kelly. "He wants to know that he has a chance to play, and if he has a chance to play, he just wants to get on the field. He didn't ask about whether (the switch to defense) was for a short-term or a long term, all he wanted was an opportunity, and that's just the kind of player he is. He doesn't get caught up in all of the minutia, of, Well, am I going to be here and get moved? Where did you want to play me, coach? (It's) show me the meeting room. He is that matter of fact. He's a fun guy to coach."
Onwualu seeks as much coaching as he can get.
"It helps that I have two great linebackers standing right next to me," said Onwualu of his ongoing trial-by-fire. "Jaylon and Joe, they're always talking to each other, I'm mainly listening because they're smarter than me. Jaylon is calling out everything he sees, and he sees a lot.
"They're both vocal. Jaylon will communicate what's going on. Joe is kind of the commander. 'Here's this, close right, bang, bang, bang,' and everybody knows what's going on. Jaylon will be like watch this, this, this, and this.' They're great together and I'm trying to keep up with their level of play."
A full day of football is part of that plan, at least in the fall semester.
I have class until about 12:30 and then I'm in here watching film with (outside linebackers) Coach (Bob) Elliott or Jaylon or any defensive guys," said Onwualu. "To see the practice that I've usually already watched the night before, or to see the upcoming opponent. So I'm (watching film) from about 12:30 to 2:00, we start meetings at 2:15, then practice, film, then watch a little after dinner."
Scratching the SurfaceBecause the Irish used the nickel and dime looks on approximately 74 percent of their defensive snaps, Onwualu's debut game only included about 10 snaps from scrimmage. Both packages bring senior Matthias Farley onto the field for Onwualu.
The sophomore stayed locked in by playing on all four of the Irish run and return teams and by taking mental reps on the sidelines.
"Matthias and I play a similar position, even when we're in nickel," Onwualu offered. "When I'm on the sideline, I'm looking for what I can help him with, or help myself. Looking for tendencies to say, 'Watch when (the opponent) is doing this, because they're coming around and doing this.'
"Basically it's another eye."
Still honing his eye for the outside 'backer position, Onwualu took advantage of the opportunity Kelly and VanGorder presented after reviewing 2013 film.
"I just think that his toughness and just his demeanor, the way he played the game," said Kelly of why he felt Onwualu could flip scrimmage. "We just saw a guy that had that innate ability to attack and shed blockers and, again, play the game in a manner that we felt like defensively it would be worth taking a look at.
"He's got toughness. He's highly conditioned as an athlete -- highly conditioned. Takes great care of his body, can go all day. He's on every running team, too, he plays a ton of snaps for us, he could play every snap," Kelly added.
"From a physical standpoint, he plays bigger than his size. H was our special teams player of the game (against Rice). He earned more points than any player on special teams, and he stopped the fake (punt), which is a game changer in itself. He's got that awareness that he's playing all these plays and can smell out a fake on special teams. That's just a little bit about James Onwualu in a nutshell."
As is this. Asked about starting players also playing on every speciality unit, Onwualu offered, "I don't think it's weird, I love playing special teams. You can just run down the field and make plays with your buddies. That first play when the song comes on and all the crowd is going crazy. I enjoy it."