Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

Irish A-to-Z: James Onwualu

Purdue v Notre Dame

Purdue v Notre Dame

Getty Images

As a true freshman, James Onwualu found his way into the starting lineup, an unheralded freshman finding playing time by doing the little things right. As a sophomore, Onwualu made the rather unheard of transition from wideout to linebacker, and once again found himself starting football games.

Now two years into his time as a linebacker, Onwualu’s comfort as a defender may be growing, though his place in the unit may be tougher to figure out. With a linebacking corps that may be at its best with Jaylon Smith starting in Onwualu’s spot, regardless of what’s projected, it’s nearly certain that the versatile football player will find a way to help this team.

Let’s look closer at the St. Paul native.

6'1", 220 lbs.
Junior, No. 17, LB


A part of the Cretin-Derham Hall pipeline, Onwualu was a four-star recruit who had offers from Michigan and Ohio State, but ended his recruitment in March, before early enrolling, the first CDH athlete ever to leave the high school early.

A big-bodied wide receiver who didn’t have elite speed, Onwualu projected as a versatile player from the start, with Kelly mentioning a potential switch to defense as early as Signing Day.


Freshman Season (2013): Played in all 12 regular season games, making four starts. Caught two passes for 34 yards, while contributing on special teams making six tackles. Served mainly as a blocker at wide receiver, taking Daniel Smith’s job.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in all 13 games while starting eight at linebacker. Made 24 tackles from his outside linebacker position, including two TFLs. Onwualu had seven stops against Navy, including his two TFLs on the season.


It’s always good to be right, especially when writing about someone from your high school alma mater:

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.


On first glance, there’s nothing extraordinary about Onwualu. He’s an undersized linebacker who doesn’t jump out for his elite athleticism nor for being overly physical. But when you look at the first season he played in a system that he was learning while also learning how to play defense, and it puts into context what a solid debut season Onwualu had.

You’ve got to expect a few growth spurts in Onwualu’s game. And while it’s hard to see him being an everydown linebacker, as the college game spends more time spreading defenses out, a linebacker who used to be a wide receiver—and also likes to crack heads—is a nice asset to have.


I think Jaylon Smith spends a lot of time on the outside of this defense, making me wonder where Onwualu plays. But I also think that the more opponents move quickly and try to spread Notre Dame out, the more likely Onwualu is a piece of the defensive puzzle.

It’s worth noting that Onwualu’s most productive game was against Navy. You don’t expect an undersized linebacker to be great against the option, especially after Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder talked about utilizing Greer Martini as a jumbo-sized OLB against more rugged opponents.

Still, it’s a telling indicator that Onwualu has the Football IQ to make tackles in the backfield against Navy. And after an unlikely ascent into the starting lineup in each of his first two seasons in South Bend, you’d be wise not to bet against a football player who has shown himself to be a productive piece of the puzzle.

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, P
Romeo Okwara, DE