James Onwualu was a top 300 (No. 296) player out of Cretin Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn., a pipeline to Notre Dame the last decade, most notably sending record-setting receiver Michael Floyd to South Bend a few years back.
Onwualu was the third player to commit in the 23-man signing class of 2013 following offensive lineman Steve Elmer and defensive lineman Jacob Matuska. Onwualu made his pledge to the Irish about 11 months in advance of the signing date.
Despite the early start at Notre Dame and putting his name in the running at wide receiver early in the 2013 season, Onwualu played a fairly limited role in his rookie campaign, although he was credited with four starting assignments while seeing extensive action on special teams. He caught just two passes for 34 yards. His prowess/physicality as a blocker in space may have been the impetus for the position conversion.
Onwualu made the transition to Sam linebacker during Brian VanGorder’s first spring as he shared the position with John Turner, who projected as the starter at the time. But it was Onwualu who started eight of Notre Dame’s 13 games in ’14, finishing with 24 tackles, two of which were for lost yardage.
Onwualu projects as the starting Sam linebacker heading into the 2015 season.
Onwualu shows the size and physicality to play the Sam linebacker position, which keeps him on the field in running and passing situations. Onwualu continues to mature physically to go along with his athleticism, giving the Irish a versatile two-way performer on the edge of the defense.
Onwualu’s role remains that of a passing-down Sam linebacker. Jaylon Smith also could take reps away on the outside, particularly if the Irish coaching staff tries to loosen up the logjam of talent at Mike and Will linebacker. Even if Onwualu does not see regular time at OLB, he’ll be a mainstay on special teams.
You’re not going to find too many wide receivers-turned-outside linebackers on the collegiate level. Travis Thomas wasn’t a receiver – he was a running back – but he made the transition to outside linebacker in 2006, where he made 35 tackles with five tackles for loss and a sack. Thomas was listed at 6-foot-0, 218 pounds in ’06; Onwualu measured at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds in the spring.
It’s tough to hold Onwualu accountable to his to four-star status considering he was a receiver who made the transition to outside linebacker a little more than a year ago. His learning curve amidst the transition has been much steeper than the average early-entry player heading into his third year in the program. That being said, he’s viewed as a four-star talent/personality by VanGorder with a ton of upside.
Onwualu’s most extensive role as an outside linebacker in 2014 came against Navy as VanGorder tried to devise a plan that accentuated some physical matchups that could help offset the Midshipmen scheme. Although one of Onwualu’s eight starts was not against Navy, he ultimately made a career-best seven tackles, including two tackles for loss.
“I’m a physical guy. I get by with not being scared to get into it. A little more strength might help. It really comes down to my mentality of being able to get into it.”
-- James Onwualu