Video: James Onwualu sees gains on defense

Captain James Onwualu sees the confidence of the defense growing as the younger players gain experience.

Q. James, last year collectively you guys as a defense did a pretty good job of stopping Christian McCaffrey. What sort of was the focus of that week, and how did you go about limiting him to under 100 yards?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I think just focusing on our box play and just locking down the box. Obviously, he's the guy that kind of wants to get on the edge and use his speed. So containing him in the box and playing well against that run game.

Q. Have you watched any of his film this year? Obviously, he hasn't been as effective in the last couple games. Can you notice any difference there of what teams may be doing to consistently keep him from gaining yards?
JAMES ONWUALU: Oh, I mean, just like I said, just trying to keep him in the box. Again, he's trying to get outside, stretch the field. Once he gets in open field, he's tough to take down and really contain. So whatever we can do to keep him as confined as possible.

Q. Obviously his status is up in the air for this game, but you guys are preparing and expecting him to play?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, obviously preparing. But a lot of the guys don't even really know. So we're just continuing our preparation.

Q. Obviously, the last six games are hard ones to evaluate. But in terms of confidence for the defense, how much of the last six quarters do you feel really kind of boosted the younger guys in particular to kind of believing that you guys are on the right track?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I think it's a great confidence booster for them, especially in a game where it's pretty much defense versus defense, and who is going to hold up longer in that game? It's really all field position and defense.

So I think our guys played well, and hopefully keep it rolling in the next week.

Q. How much is that needed or was that needed at this point in the season for you guys just to have that feeling of knowing, okay, we can do this? I know you guys believe it, but having that evidence, how important is that for a defense?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I think it's huge, especially like you said, for those younger guys. I knew it would come and everybody has their time. That might take a couple games, might take a whole year for some guys to really realize their ability and that they're here for a reason. So for it to click for some of the guys so soon, I think it's great. Like I said, I'm excited to see what they do next week.

Q. You guys are 2-4, obviously not where you wanted to be, where you expected to be. What do you feel is the goal now for this team for the second half of the season?
JAMES ONWUALU: For me, it's just every week, every week is a new goal. Beating the team that we have, the opponent that we have each week. This week it's beating Stanford, and that will be a huge accomplishment for our team, wiping out all the past.

Like I said, every week is going to be my main focus, and that's really all you can focus on.

Q. On the big-picture side, how important is it for you guys to get to a bowl game?
JAMES ONWUALU: Obviously big picture, that's a goal and a standard that's been set here. But like I just said, I'm just focused on keeping the guys locked in to our opponent for the week and trying to pull out as my wins as possible.

Q. Fans see Coach Kelly on the sidelines and see him interacting with players and they get the opinion that they get. Lot of times they don't see the locker room stuff that Fighting Irish Media shared this week showing his compassion for you guys saying he's got to put it more on himself. When he gives you guys that message in the locker room, how important is it as a team to hear that from your coach?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, it's important. It's just a reminder that we're all in it together, and we're working towards the same goals. He's a 2-4 coach as well. So like I said, we're all in this together. A lot of the fans can see what he does on the sideline as negative. But it's high stress, especially in a situation we're in now. Everybody wants to win and everybody wants to get it right. So obviously it's his job as the head man to be the enforcer of that.

Q. Outside perception that Coach Kelly blames players when things aren't going right. How do you react to that, especially in those moments?
JAMES ONWUALU: I mean, that's tough. Obviously some guys don't perform in every game and it's tough at this level. Obviously, don't love seeing that from a head coach, but sometimes it's necessary.

Q. Torii was up here talking about how the practice routine maybe hasn't changed a lot, but BK was trying to put you guys in different situations to emphasize closing out games. Has the defense done anything differently to jump into a two-minute drill this week? How has the routine changed?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, so Hudson stepped down, Isaac and I spent some time with the coaches just to try to think about how we could switch up practices just so it wasn't so routine. And some of the things that we switched up is just having an emphasis on a couple different areas, third down being one of those.

So instead of waiting till Wednesday or Thursday to really work on third down, we now start that off on Tuesday, so guys have to come ready for practice starting day one, and early in the practice as well. So that's one of the changes. There are some other minor changes that we've made. But just switching it up so it's not so routine and guys have something to look forward to within a practice.

Q. I can't remember which player mentioned this, but said that when the ones go and the twos come in, maybe you don't run the same plays in the same order again, so it's a little bit more mindful. Is that one of the changes?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, that's one of the changes as well. When the twos pretty much watch our reps and then come in and imitate what we were doing, which, you know, isn't as beneficial as giving them a new look and giving them as real a football as possible.

But giving them different looks and also keeping us engaged on the sideline for Jamir Jones, doing a lot of great things. He's getting in there playing some real football and getting some real reps. I can be on the sideline getting those mental reps as well, but also being able to give him some advice or correct him during practice.

Q. I don't know if you ever really were a two when VanGorder was here. But when the reps are the same and went to the same plays and you're the younger guy taking the two, do you just sort of, imitate is probably a good word to use, like you're not thinking about it, but I want to do what the last guy did?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, exactly. And a lot of times if the first string guy makes a mistake, the second string guy will make that same mistake' even after watching it. So I think it is good switching it up. Like I said, it keeps the sideline involved and also keeps the second string primed up and ready to go.

Q. I think you're on a special teams unit or two. Do you guys like doing that? Can you kind of explain the mentality of playing special teams and why you guys are struggling on some of those?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I've always been a special teams guy. I've always loved special teams. Unfortunately I haven't been able to be on as many teams this year just because of my volume on defense. But I mean, I think guys like it just because of the freedom of it. It's one play to go all in and to make an impact on field position and give the other team an idea of what the identity of our team is.

So for me, it's always fun. Yeah, we just need to continue to build that importance. That's the third aspect of our team, offense, defense, and special teams. So continuing to push that and practice that hard is important, especially in the younger guys.

Q. Are you guys practicing that a little differently? I think coach said you changed some things up the way you practiced it, the tackling and that. Has that changed?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, there's been a lot of little minor changes. Special teams is one of them. Just being more physical at the end of the play. Lot of times we have certain reps that save our legs, and we also have certain reps that give us a good look. And our scout guys do a great job giving us a good look on all those special teams.

Q. Some players mentioned last week you guys are reading more in units rather than being in a defense in the whole. And Coach mentioned yesterday he's up in the tower more watching both offense and defense. Are there any other subtle changes that have been made since Coach VanGorder left, even small things that you think have kind of helped out things?
JAMES ONWUALU: Like you said, the private meetings, the more linebackers are meeting together. Then also the changeup in practice, like I was talking about earlier. It keeps guys involved and makes them stay on their toes throughout the whole practice because you never really know what's coming. It's not as step by step as it used to be.

I'm trying to think. There are some other changes, but I think those are two of the biggest ones that have really made an impact so far.

Q. But the meeting by units, is it just that you can focus more on what your particular position maybe needs to work more on as opposed to looking at defense as a whole?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I think it's just a little more efficient on focusing in on each individual position.

Before, I think both ways have their benefits. When you're in a whole group, the linebackers are learning about the D-line and DBs and are able to keep them accountable, which is important. But at the same time, you need to have more specific and focused look at your specific position. So I think there is a benefit of both. And we've continued to do both. But, yeah, the more focused meetings have helped, I think.


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