ND's Onwualu counted on for experience, leadership

AP photoFighting Irish linebacker James Onwualu (right) pursues Stanford running back Bryce Love during the Oct. 15 game at Notre Dame.

NOTRE DAME — 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 linebacker 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 dependability. "I don't worry about personal pursuits or personal goals, everything has to be team first."

Onwualu's selfless attitude may never be more important in any game this season as it is Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla., when host Notre Dame (3-5) and Navy (5-2) tangle for the 90th consecutive year.

With so many rookie Irish defensive players seeing Navy's intricate triple-option offense for the first time, Onwualu's veteran calmness and performance will be magnified if Notre Dame is going to finally secure two consecutive wins this season.

"There's late nights, and they are watching extra film," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said this week of the additional homework for his players. "There is extra preparation for a team like this. This is a difficult week."

Prep time that is made more challenging because of so many young Irish defensive players.

With the absence this season of reliable defensive captains Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Mathias Farley — four Irish standouts from last year who never lost to Navy — a top priority for Notre Dame this preseason was finding strong voices to fill those leadership voids.

And while Onwualu isn't the most recognizable name on the Irish roster from the outside, on the inside, he was the perfect candidate for captainship and is arguably the most important player on the field as Notre Dame tries to contain Navy's unique offense.

"James 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."

Onwualu's commitment to excellence and improvement became especially evident this offseason when he put all personal pursuits aside and took a piano class during summer school so he could spend his entire offseason on campus, working with the Irish strength staff to reinvent himself physically.

"I knew coming into my senior season that I needed to be here (in the summer) working hard for both myself and for the team," he said.

Through that hard work and better nutrition, Onwualu's body fat is way down this year, 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. The dividends and versatility are showing.

Heading into the Navy game, Onwualu ranks fourth on the Irish in tackles (40), third in tackles for loss (6.5), and first in pass breakups (5).

And while busy rebuilding himself in the summer to bolster his production and his hopes for a professional career, 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 in every way."

And looking back now for Onwualu, to be named a team captain was another special moment during his time at Notre Dame, and an unexpected reward to what has been an unlikely and amazing career that he hopes won't end this season without at least three more wins and a berth in a bowl game.

"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."

It's an important and a well-deserved gift that James Onwualu will never take for granted and cherish forever.

Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.


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