Most days started around 6 a.m. for James Onwualu, meaning that’s when he arrived at the office during his month-long internship last summer at Bank of America.
Notre Dame’s outside linebacker prepped reports for higher-ups in his investment banking office before they arrived. Breakfast followed. Then he shadowed his superiors around the office. Afternoons were replays of early mornings before the office herd thinned. By 6 p.m. Onwualu had started his workout in the firm’s basement, which helped him add 15 pounds this off-season. Three hours later he’d punch out, heading home to his brother’s place in Tribeca.
Repeat for four weeks. Then return to South Bend for summer school.
“I’m in classes with all these finance kids and they’re like, ‘Where are you working? Oh, I’m at Goldman.’ I’m the only kid in my class that’s not doing that,” Onwualu said. “Why wouldn’t I reach out and see what I can do, try to compete against these other kids?”
One reason might be Onwualu was still fighting for reps within Brian VanGorder’s defense. Listed as a starter last season, Onwualu really wasn’t. Notre Dame made nickel its base defense, which meant subbing out the linebacker for utility man Matthias Farley.
But that dynamic might be changing.
Now 232 pounds, Onwualu maintained the athleticism that made him a receiver prospect out of Cretin-Derham Hall and a potential safety after his freshman year. He’s settled at outside linebacker since and earned the staff’s trust based on how Notre Dame played defense against Texas.
In the first seven games last season – meaning when the Irish were at full strength – Notre Dame played more nickel than base six times. In nickel and dime, Onwualu subs out. Last Saturday night against Texas, the Irish logged 28 snaps in base versus just seven in nickel and 17 in dime. That’s progress for Onwualu, who posted three tackles.
“I'll tell you what, that guy is one of the best cover down linebackers that I've seen,” said Brian Kelly. “Look, I pay attention to that stuff. He reroutes the heck out of people. I mean, he's just really got a great knack at rerouting receivers. He does a great job.”
Onwualu said Kelly and strength coach Paul Longo were receptive when he asked to do the Bank of American internship, which required an extra week off campus this summer. The South Africa program, which included Jaylon Smith and Corey Robinson, ran just three weeks.
All the Notre Dame connections probably helped sell Kelly. Onwualu reached out to Bank of America Director Michael York, a Notre Dame graduate about the program. His brother John, in banking at Morgan Stanley and another Notre Dame fan going back to his own time at Cretin-Derham Hall, made sure the Irish junior ate right.
“My brother and his friends, who are the biggest Notre Dame fans in the country, they were force-feeding me,” Onwualu said. “All my (Bank of America) managers knew the deal and were feeding me and taking me out to lunch. It was nice.”
Morgan Stanley also recruited Onwualu for the abridged internship, but branching out from his brother helped get Bank of America over the top.
Back in South Bend, a second year under VanGorder has been familiar in a good way. The reps Onwualu earned against Texas back that up.
“It’s really my first time since freshman year of high school that I’m playing the same position back to back,” Onwualu said. “Last year it was about trying to understand coverages. This year it’s about trying to take that next step and go through that next door and understand why we’re running that.”
Texas was abysmal offensively against all Notre Dame personnel groups, including the base of Onwualu, Smith and Joe Schmidt at linebacker with four defensive linemen. That set held Texas to 51 yards rushing on 17 carries (3.0 ypc) and 5-of-11 passing for 70 yards. That included the 48-yard completion against KeiVarae Russell in addition to two sacks.
Was the base defense bump a byproduct of Onwualu’s improvement or the specific game plan?
“Well, it was a little bit of both,” Kelly said. “We were in some really good situations first and second down with him on the field. So we didn't have to get into a lot of our speed sets and calls. So James consequently was on the field a lot in those first and second down situations.
“But I think it was more about situations and circumstances than it was, ‘Hey, James is going to get more playing time.’ I think we're going to be pretty balanced.”
Onwualu wants to make base defense so good that Kelly can keep three linebackers on the field against the pass. With less substitution a goal for VanGorder against tempo offenses, what happened Saturday represents stock up for the junior linebacker.