Sept. 13, 2016
By Todd Burlage
Ask James Onwualu for the single word that best describes his personality as a student and an athlete, and after a few seconds of reflection, the Notre Dame senior settles on “dependable.”
Dedicated, unselfish, steady, driven would all work nicely too, but Onwualu’s description of himself as dependable probably fits best, a quality he has demonstrated throughout his Irish football career.
“I just want to be thought of as somebody who would do anything that is asked of me to help the team,” Onwualu said when pressed on how he defines dependable. “I don’t worry about personal pursuits or personal goals, everything has to be team first. That’s the only way to be successful as a group.”
This unconditional team-first attitude not only helps to define Onwualu as a player, but it also caught the attention of the Notre Dame coaching staff last month when team captains were selected.
More on Onwualu’s high team honor in a bit, but to fully understand how this senior linebacker became one of the strongest voices on the team, it’s first important to look back at the improbable journey that eventually carried him to his important leadership role.
A four-star wide receiver recruit in 2013 out of Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota–a Notre Dame pipeline school that produced former Irish players Michael Floyd, Ryan Harris, Marcus Freeman and Rashon Powers-Neal–Onwualu never could’ve imagined he would finish his college career as a linebacker.
Appearing in all 12 regular season games as a freshman wide receiver in 2013, Onwualu finished with two receptions and four starts.
And while Onwualu’s contributions as a rookie receiver were promising, it was his work as a special teams ace, and some roster considerations, that caused a change of career choice.
As part of a consensus top-five Irish recruiting class that featured one of the best wide receiving crews in the country–a player list that included future All-American and first-round NFL Draft pick Will Fuller along with standouts Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter Jr.–Onwualu had the foresight to slide by the corner coaching office for chat.
“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to Coach [Brian] Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu recalled. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out. I had confidence in the coaches. I knew they would take care of me.”
After a quick stop at the safety position that even Onwualu admitted didn’t go so well, this versatile athlete relied on brains more than brawn when he moved to outside linebacker for his sophomore season.
The transition wasn’t easy.
“Seeing the game kind of backward and having everything coming at you from the other side was tough at times,” Onwualu said of the new and foreign defensive perspective to which he was acclimating.
Growing pains aside, Onwualu knew all along this tough move was the only move if he wanted to thrive at Notre Dame.
“The time I have put in and my ability to really do whatever it takes to help the team, moving to different positions and being able to do whatever Coach [Kelly] asks me,” Onwualu said, “I think Coach really looks for that, especially with the younger guys.”
On top of that, Onwualu admits his personality didn’t always match his previous position very well.
“A lot of receivers, they wouldn’t like me to say this, but sometimes they’re a little bit more pretty boy than some of the D-boys,” he said. “They need to go out there and be willing to play special teams, be willing to block a linebacker, do some of the gritty stuff in order to help the team.”
So looking back to three seasons ago, did Onwualu make the right choice in switching from receiver to linebacker? At least one teammate playfully said absolutely.
“Oh, yeah, defense is where he belongs,” ribbed Hunter after playing the 2013 season alongside Onwualu at wide receiver. “I will say, though, he was a great blocker.”
Always a quick study, Onwualu has shown steady progress at his current position, finishing with 24 tackles as a sophomore in 2014 and another 34 as a junior last season including three sacks–with much bigger expectations this senior season during his last go-around here.
So, what was the secret to successfully making the strange transition from wide receiver to linebacker?
“I’m a physical guy and what helps me is that I’m not afraid to get in and mix things up,” Onwualu explained. “That’s the part of my makeup as a player that helped me get where I am.”
Change of Course
Onwualu always has been the type of selfless player who coaches love. He’s a strong leader who demands as much from himself as he does his teammates–if not more–and does so through a balance of words and deeds.
“James has always been driven beyond comprehension in a lot of people’s eyes,” explained Mike Scanlin, Onwualu’s high school coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, in a story for the Chicago Tribune.
And that commitment to both excellence and improvement became especially evident this offseason when Onwualu put all personal pursuits aside and attended summer school so he could spend his entire offseason on campus, working with the Irish strength staff to reinvent himself physically.
A year ago, Onwualu spent part of his summer as an intern on Wall Street in New York City working with his brother, John, at Bank of America. James’ responsibilities there caused him to miss the start of off-season workouts last June.
“The internship was an important part of my development as a student,” James said. “But I knew coming into my senior season that I needed to be here (this summer) working hard for both myself and for the team.”
Onwualu’s measurables this season–6-foot-1 and 232 pounds–are identical to last year’s. Yet, the difference in his physical makeup is unmistakable from this time last season.
Through hard work and better nutrition, Onwualu’s body fat is way down, his speed is way up and his bench press reps at 225 pounds have climbed into the mid 20s, easily the best mark of his career.
“This transformation was as much about nutrition, eating better, than anything else,” said Onwualu, who tries to eat six quality meals a day when three or maybe four was the norm last year. “To get where I needed to be physically this season and to build any football future after college, this was part of the process and I feel great, never felt better actually.”
While rebuilding himself this summer, Onwualu also went to work on his position group.
“Just preparing and trying to plan out what’s best for the linebacker corps and the defense as a whole,” he said. “I wanted to focus on being a leader for this team and winning a national championship.”
Captain, My Captain
With the absence this year of strong defensive leaders Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Mathias Farley, top priority for the Notre Dame unit this preseason was finding some strong voices to fill that void.
And while Onwualu isn’t the most recognizable name on the Irish roster from the outside, on the inside he made the perfect candidate for captainship.
“(He) is well respected by all his peers, one of our hardest workers, and now he has put himself in a position to lead our football team,” Kelly said. “I think James Onwualu is one guy in particular that really took hold of the leadership position for us. He’s a highly respected player in our program.”
And for Onwualu, to be named a team captain was another special moment and an unexpected reward to what has been an unlikely and amazing career.
“For a person like me, who absolutely loves this University and has put so much in and cares so much about the success of every aspect of the team,” Onwualu said, “it’s just an honor someone would be confident enough to put it in my hands to help lead this team.”
An important and a well-deserved gift that Onwualu will never take for granted and cherish forever.
Todd Burlage is a free-lance writer who follows the Notre Dame athletics scene.