SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) James Onwualu has been through a lot of change in his four years at Notre Dame, going from being a blocking wide receiver starting four games as a freshman to a defensive stalwart who helped turn around a defense that was foundering to start the season.
Coach Brian Kelly credits the 6-foot-1, 232-pound linebacker from St. Paul, Minnesota, and defensive end Isaac Rochell with anchoring the unit when coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired after a 1-3 start and lauds them for providing the leadership needed when the Irish (4-6) started depending more on freshmen.
''Those two guys in particular, Rochell and Onwualu were unbelievable,'' Kelly said. ''It was, I think, crucial when we made a change defensively, played all those freshmen, we needed guys to lead by example. We didn't need a guy yelling and screaming. And those two guys live by example.''
It was a challenge for Onwualu to stay positive when VanGorder was fired because the coach had helped him so much when he switched from offense, moving at first to safety and then to linebacker.
''You're pretty much failing every single day. Like, I'm coming in, never backpedaled in my life really, didn't know much about defense, maybe just normal coverages, but you're pretty much coming in and failing every single day,'' he said. ''So to have somebody like coach VanGorder who is working you through that process and continuing to give you confidence, and say you're learning this today and you've improved here, but also at the same time pushing you.''
Onwualu made the change after making two catches as a freshman. He saw other freshmen receivers such as Will Fuller and Corey Robinson with so much more talent, and he was excelling making tackles on special teams. He figures if he stayed at receiver he might have finished with 10 catches this season. Instead, he's been a three-year starter on defense and is third in tackles this season with 60 heading into his final game Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium against Virginia Tech (7-3). He's also second on the team with five pass break-ups and has two sacks.
''I feel so much more comfortable on the defensive side. It kind of fits my mentality a little bit more,'' he said.
Rochell believes Onwualu would be good at whatever he tries.
''He's always going to be working hard,'' he said. ''If he was picking up trash from the Gug he'd be great at it. It doesn't matter if he's crunching numbers in accounting, he's going to be great at it.''
Onwualu takes pride in that the defense has consistently improved and has a chance to show how good it is in its final two games against Virginia Tech and No. 15 USC (7-3).
''We knew that we were just working toward something and working toward being the best team that we could be, and I think it's just starting to kind of shape around,'' he said. ''Guys are starting to realize how talented we can really be.''