Despite the struggles endured by the 2014-15 Notre Dame defenses, there was a comfort zone in seeing No. 9 and No. 38 on the field with No. 59 stabilizing the Irish backup linebacker corps and special teams.
On the second level of the defense – as well as the first with the departure of Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara – the ushering in of new leaders is in order as winter workouts commence and spring practice looms two months from now.
Such is the nature of the college game. The next time the Irish don uniforms and take to the practice field, Jaylon Smith (No. 9), Joe Schmidt (No. 38) and Jarrett Grace (No. 59) won’t be around to lean on their experience, maturity and – in the instance of the dynamic Smith – off-the-chart football ability.
“It’s crazy to think about, but I’ll be one of the oldest guys,” said Sam linebacker James Onwualu, who becomes defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s new security blanket when it comes to players who have “mastered the system.”
From the moment he transitioned from receiver to safety to outside linebacker a couple of springs ago, Onwualu has been a VanGorder favorite. It certainly wasn’t because of his size or his strength or his speed. Those were all commensurate to a player transitioning from the offense, none of which were overwhelming physical assets to begin with.
The excitement Onwualu generated on the defensive side of the football was born of his intelligence, his quick adaptation to the scheme, and a second-to-none, all-for-one attitude that endeared him to VanGorder.
It didn’t necessarily reveal itself in Onwualu’s production during his first year at outside linebacker in 2014. He started eight of 13 games – sometimes giving way to Matthias Farley due to in-game matchups – and finished with 24 tackles, two of which were behind the line of scrimmage.
And yet it was Onwualu who fought off the charge of another bright fellow – Greer Martini – to win the Sam linebacker job for the second year in a row in 2015. This time, Onwualu showed some disruptive capabilities, finishing with 38 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks, which surprisingly was third on the team behind Okwara (8) and Day (4).
“I now feel physically equipped,” said Onwualu two days before the Fiesta Bowl. “That was kind of in question (in ’14), just because I was not really in tune with all the motions and all the aspects of the defense.
“It was different for me. I’ve settled into that. Obviously, you can always get stronger and faster, but I feel great at the position I’m at.”
Still, Onwualu will go under the radar as the analysis of the future of the Notre Dame defense commences without the aforementioned big names. There will be more talk leading up to the fall about the impact of Nyles Morgan, Te’von Coney and Notre Dame’s 2015 defensive prep player of the year, Asmar Bilal, than there will be about Onwualu.
Yet when VanGorder begins the process of organizing his third defense at Notre Dame, he’ll lean heavily on the cerebral Onwualu, whose natural leadership skills continue to progress to the forefront.
“I’m really going to try to step up and be a leader,” said the 6-foot-1, 232-pounder. “I see Isaac Rochell, Cole Luke, Max Redfield, along side with me on defense.
“Those guys, including myself, will definitely step up and help our different groups to really strengthen the defense.”
Onwualu’s first order of business will be organizing the linebacker corps, which – as a senior in ’16 with two years of eligibility – is right in his wheelhouse.
“I’ve got great guys around me – Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, Te’von Coney – and then Josh (Barajas) and Asmar (Bilal),” Onwualu said. “Those guys are great to work with.
“When you have competitive guys like that, you just focus on scheme and you focus on building the team. We can definitely get to 10, 11, 12 wins.”
Other possibilities at linebacker come this fall include incoming freshmen Daelin Hayes and Jamir Jones, listed as linebackers during the recruiting process, but prospects who could end up with a hand on the ground eventually, if not immediately.
If Notre Dame can win a battle with Oklahoma during the final stages of the recruiting process, five-star Caleb Kelly could be in the mix as well along with another five-star – longshot Ben Davis – four-star Jeffrey McCulloch and three-star Jonathan Jones.
Notre Dame’s linebacker corps is in the process of a major overhaul. Onwualu becomes new the constant.
“One thing Coach (VanGorder) does a great job of is getting the young guys to really buy in, and that’s part of leadership as well,” Onwualu said. “I’m hoping to be one of those leaders, step up and really help the linebacker corps.”