James Onwualu scheduled it all by design, from the summer internship on Wall Street last summer to the piano lessons on campus last month. It’s meant the senior linebacker has ridden less of a career arc and more of a career straight line into his final season.
The former four-star athlete now represents Notre Dame’s most reliable linebacker and perhaps its most conscientious voice in the locker room. And the Irish need both.
A year ago Onwualu worked at Bank of America during summer break and missed the start of off-season workouts in June. This summer he stayed put in South Bend, took a piano class and got serious about his diet. Listed a 6-foot-1 and 232 pounds – his comically identical measurables to last year – Onwualu hardly looks the same.
“Yeah, I spent some time with (Paul) Longo, coach Jake (Flynt),” Onwualu said. “Been eating. You need to be getting something every couple hours and you know I actually focused in on that, so yeah, my weight went up a little bit and I got much stronger. I feel good in my body right now.”
Onwualu focused on taking six meals a day when a year ago getting half that was an accomplishment. His body fat is down and his bench reps at 225 pounds jumped “two or three” reps into the mid-20’s. To look at Onwualu now, he hardly resembles the athlete who enrolled as a receiver, shifted to safety, then jumped into the lineup at linebacker as a sophomore.
“This summer I really wanted to focus on being a leader for this team and winning the national championship,” Onwualu said “That's been my focus all summer trying to take care of my body and do whatever is best for me so that I can help. And then also just preparing and trying to plan out what's best for the linebacker corps and the defense as a whole.”
Onwualu’s four-month decision, meaning his hyper focus on his final season, becomes even more important within a defense struggling for a voice. Down Joe Schmidt, Matthias Farley Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day, the Irish must replace five seasons of captain experience.
Onwualu seems certain to help fill that void and Brian Kelly knows it. Despite mentioning him just once during his pre-camp press conference, Kelly also mentioned Onwualu first when talking about potential leaders.
“I think James Onwualu is one guy in particular that really took hold of the leadership position for us,” Kelly said. “He’s a highly-respected player in our program, but was certainly one that wanted people to take notice and certainly did.”
The senior returned to the Sam linebacker spot Saturday in the starting defense, although he subbed out in nickel packages, customary for that position. Interestingly, he also worked as the third-team nickel back behind cornerbacks Shaun Crawford and Julian Love.
At Texas in four weeks, Onwualu will be Notre Dame’s most experienced linebacker regardless of the starting lineup, which included Nyles Morgan and Asmar Bilal on Saturday. Morgan started four times during the defensive meltdown of Brian VanGorder’s first November and got stuck on the bench last year. Bilal has never seen the field.
Onwualu did lean on those two this off-season in the weight room while repaying them off-the-field in learning the defense.
“Just lifting strong people, lifting with Asmar, who's for some reason an absolute freak. He was born a freak, he's so strong,” Onwualu said. “So lifting with him every day and Nyles, just trying to continue to get stronger and put yourself in the weight room.”
Onwualu did plenty of that this summer.
Now, by design, he seems set for his best season yet.