Sophomore James Onwualu was one of three freshman wide receivers to contribute during 2013, a debut season that had Notre Dame’s pass-catching depth chart looking promising for years to come. But in one of the surprises of the spring, Onwualu switched to the defensive side of the ball, a new safety/linebacker hybrid for Brian VanGorder to utilize in his sub-happy scheme.
Shifting from safety to linebacker, spring was spent spent getting up to speed as Onwualu learned a new position. But after successful switches for special teams aces Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth, and Matthias Farley also moving successfully from wide receiver to defensive back, the physicality Onwualu showed as a freshman made the move a natural one.
Let’s take a closer look at the St. Paul native.
6'1" 220 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 17
Onwualu hails from Notre Dame pipeline Cretin-Derham Hall, and while he wasn’t the level recruit that Michael Floyd or Ryan Harris was, Onwualu was no slouch. A four-star prospect according to Rivals, Onwualu had offers from Michigan and Ohio State (among others), but locked things down early in March when he committed to the Irish.
From there, Onwualu became an early leader in the recruiting class, helping to grow the “Irish Mob” before enrolling in January, the first CDH athlete to ever graudate early. Kelly talked about the versatility in Onwualu’s game on Signing Day, perhaps a sign that this move was always in the back of the staff’s mind.
“This is a very talented player, very talented,” Kelly said on Signing Day. “If you watch him work out ‑ I know Coach Longo has got our guys in there already ‑ really love his athletic ability. Versatile player, he’s going to be on the offensive side of the ball, but if we ever got into a bind he certainly could play defense, as well.”
Freshman Season (2013): Played in all 12 regular season games, making four starts. Caught two passes for 34 yards. Also contributed on special teams, making six tackles on the year.
While he’s not long and isn’t necessarily the fastest player, Onwualu has great quickness and extreme physicality. He used that as a blocker at wide receiver, and it’ll come in handy as an underneath cover man who will also hold up just fine in the trenches. After seeing linebackers like Prince Shembo and Carlo Calabrese struggle to cover in space, having a wide receiver who started four games at linebacker is an asset that didn’t exist the past few years.
That said, it’s difficult to read too much into the cameo Onwualu had this spring on defense, but fall camp will give him an opportunity to earn a job playing outside linebacker, a starting role that would’ve been tough to imagine Onwualu having on offense, unless it was in a Daniel Smith-like blocking capacity.
If Brian Kelly moves you from offense to defense, there’s usually a good reason. And history has shown the results to work quite well. Onwualu is on track to get into the mix immediately at linebacker, and he’s a productive football player, whether on offense, defense or special teams.
While Onwualu started his career at wide receiver for the Irish, he played everywhere in high school, catching passes, carrying the load and doing whatever else was asked of him. While he was his conference’s leading scorer, his high school head coach Mike Scanlan always thought he could be a very versatile weapon on the defensive side of the ball.
After one season as a receiver, we’ll see what VanGorder does with Onwualu, who should be able to find a specific role in the Irish defense and become an important piece of the puzzle in 2014.
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