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ND A-to-Z: James Onwualu

Notre Dame’s defensive utility knife is next in the A-to-Z series with James Onwualu primed for his best season in South Bend.

Notre Dame wanted James Onwualu to get bigger this summer.

Maybe that didn’t mean getting heavier based on the senior linebacker who showed up at the Irish Invasion on Saturday night. Onwualu looked like an upperclassmen who had added muscle but cut body fat, a potential captain ready to end his Notre Dame career on a high note.

“There’s a reason why the elephant isn’t the king of the jungle,” Onwualu said during spring practice when asked about adding to his 223-pound frame.

The coaching staff had hoped Onwualu would approach 235 pounds by training camp, which might be a stretch for the former receiver turned safety turned linebacker. Onwualu looks more like a player who’s maxed out his size closer to 225 pounds but could still bump his strength numbers in the coming weeks.

“James is out on the outside because physically we’d like to see him a little bigger,” said linebackers coach Mike Elston. “Moving him inside, he’s playing against a 310-, 315-pound offensive tackle. He gets overwhelmed at times based on size. He knows what we want, he’s trying to do it. It’s not easy.”

Onwualu, who could be Notre Dame’s most versatile linebacker this fall, is next in Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z series.

Best-Case Scenario

The utility Onwualu showed during spring practice wasn’t just because Notre Dame didn’t have any linebackers available. The Irish had just four scholarship backers healthy in April, which helped Onwualu get work in coverage packages. Last year he subbed out when the Irish went nickel, with Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith staying on. Now Onwualu might stick in nickel and dime considering he’s the most experienced linebacker returning. While keeping Smith and Schmidt on the field at all times made sense last year, doing the same with Nyles Morgan and Te’von Coney does not. Considering Elston called Onwualu the best coverage linebacker on the team and perhaps in the country, why would the Irish sub him out? Onwualu could be looking at a career-high for reps this season. That’s exactly what he wants.

Worst-Case Scenario

The Sam linebacker spot continues to be a part-time position, meaning Onwualu subs out in nickel and dime sets. That would require the coaching staff to roll the dice on two inexperienced linebackers in the middle, but doesn’t seem like a Brian VanGorder move. Of course if that happens Onwualu could remain a special teams ace, which might be how he makes it at the NFL level. There isn’t a classic “worst-case scenario” for Onwualu’s senior season, which feels like it will be easily his best. Minor injuries have been a bit of concern, including a concussion during his freshman season and an MCL sprain last November.

Career Comparison

Not many players can say they’ve spent time at three positions. C.J. Prosise did, but he moved from defense to offense. Matthias Farley enrolled as a receiver before shifting to safety, a similar path to Onwualu’s. If Onwualu had taken a red-shirt as a freshman instead of working on special teams (and thriving there), his career could have been almost identical to Farley as a potential captain and jack-of-all-trades athlete on defense.

Development Vs. Recruiting Ranking

Scout, Rivals and ESPN all tagged Onwualu as a four-star prospect. He was good enough to earn an invite to The Opening Finals, although a broken hand stopped him from competing. Nobody ranked the Cretin-Derham standout as a linebacker out of high school, but both Rivals and ESPN put him in the “athlete” category. Scout was the only network to have Onwualu in its Top 300. The rankings aberration came from 247, which not only ranked Onwualu as a three-star receiver but slotted him No. 58 at that position. That meant Onwualu was ranked by 247 between a receiver who signed with East Mississippi Community College and another who signed with Vanderbilt (and played in six games the past three years).

Onwualu At His Best

Onwualu came up biggest in Notre Dame’s biggest win last season, matching his career-high with seven tackles against USC. He also put up seven tackles in the nail-biting win against Navy two years ago. For a player who didn’t rank in Notre Dame’s top 10 for tackles, Onwualu was productive.

Quote To Note

“He’s a young man that’s always gonna be dialed in. When you’re professional like that you gain the respect of people who are seeing that. I think that’s one of the things coach VanGorder sees on a daily basis.” – Mike Elston during spring practice

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