SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Bennett Jackson, Matthias Farley and…James Onwualu?
Notre Dame has had some success in recent years converting wide receivers into defensive players, with Jackson becoming a team captain and reliable cornerback while Farley started at safety during 2012's run to the BCS Championship. Onwualu appears to be on the same path, albeit in an entirely different role in an entirely different system.
Onwualu came to Notre Dame in 2013 as a wide receiver from Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn. -- the same school that produced former Irish star wideout Michael Floyd. When Daniel Smith suffered a season-ending injury in early October, Onwualu filled in as a big, physical receiver who could lay good blocks on the edges.
But Notre Dame always viewed Onwualu as a potential player on defense -- coach Brian Kelly alluded to that in his press conference announcing the 2013 recruiting class over 18 months ago. Coaches moved him to safety after his freshman season, but settled on playing him as a strong-side outside linebacker in Brian VanGorder's 4-3 scheme during spring practice.
And when Notre Dame opens its 2014 season on Saturday against Rice, Onwualu looks in line to start at "Sam" outside linebacker.
"He's smart, he's learned well, very physical player and his effort -- his effort has been extraordinary" outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott said. "… That (effort) is really how he distinguished himself first. And then the other pieces started to fall into place and all of a sudden, we got a pretty good player."
Both Kelly and VanGorder echoed Elliott's praise of Onwualu's effort, which has helped the sophomore leap ahead of junior John Turner (another safety convert) and senior Ben Councell on the Sam linebacker depth chart. Expect all three players to be used there, with Councell -- who's only nine months removed from ACL surgery -- likely seeing more time against powerful, downhill offenses like Stanford.
VanGorder said he cautioned Onwualu that the transition to Sam linebacker would be tough, but said Onwualu has met the challenge with a perfect attitude.
"It might be a year where it gets to the point where it makes sense to him why we’re doing what we’re doing but he’s such a champion kid," VanGorder said. "His standards and expectations of himself are way up there, and he’ll outwork you. It’s important to him. He’s going to study, detail his work and he’s just getting better and better."
Onwualu doesn't necessarily have a simple job, but Kelly said he likely won't have as much on his plate as, say, freshman Nyles Morgan does playing inside-out as a Mike linebacker. The work he got in at safety should help him make the transition, too, given the scope of knowledge necessary to play that position.
While there may be some mis-steps given Onwualu's youth, coaches aren't concerned about the trajectory he's on given his work ethic.
"He cares so much," Kelly said. "I mean, he's got so much pride that he spends hours just mastering his craft. He will not take a minute off if he doesn't know what to do. So that's what makes that kid a special player. He just wants to master what he does."