Notre Dame's Onwualu Ready to Get Into It

Irish junior linebacker James Onwualu has always had a proclivity for the physical. Now he looks to continue to grow his overall game…and frame.

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James Onwualu: 2013 Wide Receiver, 2014 Spring Safety, 2014-15 Irish linebacker, Special Teams Constant.

There aren't many higher compliments than the moniker, "team player." It's one that fits junior do-everything James Onwualu well. It's one he'd likely prefer to augment by the conclusion of the 2015 season.

Something along the lines of "three-down linebacker" would be a nice start.

"There's a bunch of different areas I need to work on and one of the main ones is my coverage skills, to be able to work into that nickel and sam-out-in-space situation."

Listed at six-feet-one and 220 pounds, Onwualu offered he plans to add the desired measurables (more weight while gaining speed) this off-season. Not unique for an undersized linebacker at any level -- but "unique" best describes the junior's skill set.

That is: he's small, but he's a demon against the run.

"I've never been scared. My freshman year as a receiver, my job was to go hit the safety, hit the linebacker," said Onwualu. "It's natural. I've always been ready to go and get into it with whoever.

"I'll probably put on a couple more pounds because last year I got a little bit smaller (as the season progressed)," he noted. "I was used to playing receiver and not having to keep weight on my body. It's much different. I'm going to plan for that."

Playing receiver (Onwualu was the team's best blocker as a freshman, starting three games) and covering receivers proved to be disparate challenges.

"I'm playing a lot with my safety behind me, trying to help him out with re-routes and giving him isolation under," explained Onwualu of his sam (strong side) linebacker role. "Continuing to work with Max (Redfield) and (Elijah) Shumate to really make sure we're on the same page with our calls and relaying them to the corner as well. We're getting much better with communication but we have to continue to make progress."

Onwualu's worn a protective (soft) cast on his left wrist since suffering an undisclosed injury in Notre Dame's 31-28 win over LSU. He'll shed the encumbrance well before August camp, a time during which he'll work to shed a less-than-flattering label, too.

"When he's playing sam and cover down, he's close to some of the qualities of the nickel," said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. "Greer (Martini) is maybe more suited for the core, when (opponents) have a tight end in the box. He's maybe a little more effective there with the long arms and the (bigger) body than James.

"James, he's kind of a compromised nickel in some ways. He can't do the things in terms of manning the wide receiver and stuff, but he can cover down and (hit)."

VanGorder's evaluation is reflected in film reviews of Onwualu's *best performances last fall as a first-time starting 'backer: A Top 10 overall player performance against Navy; honorable mention vs. Stanford and LSU. Foes don't get much more physical than that.

(*Despite a dubious personal foul call against Northwestern, Onwualu was likely the team's ST Player of the Game vs. the Wildcats as well.)

"I'm one of the smallest linebackers obviously. They're continuing to push me to keep on eating, keep on lifting. The nutritionist and (strength and conditioning coach) Paul Longo continue to help me out a lot with that. It will definitely help my game.

"I'm a physical guy, so I get by with not being scared to get into it -- I think a little more strength would help. It comes down to my mentality of being able to get after it." Top Stories