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NFL Draft: The Case for James Onwualu

James Onwualu came to Notre Dame as a talented recruit out of Cretin-Durham High School in St. Paul Minnesota, the same high school that produced Notre Dame standouts Michael Floyd and Ryan Harris. He was originally recruited as a wide receiver, but after his freshman season he made the transition to defense. As a sophomore, Onwualu was predominantly used as a special teams player, but was listed on the depth chart as a safety. Eventually, he settled in at outside linebacker as an upperclassmen in both a coverage and EDGE player role. Making the switch to outside linebacker proved to be the right decision.

All of this clearly shows the versatile athlete that Onwualu is. He was able to fluctuate in weight and adapt to new positions quickly. In addition to his versatility, Onwualu became a very valuable player for Notre Dame in his last two seasons and was named a captain as a senior. His statistical production didn’t jump off the charts, but he was rock solid in all facets and always found a way to make plays.

Standing at 6’1 232, Onwualu doesn’t have the ideal size for any specific position at the NFL level, but with hybrid linebackers becoming more of a trend in today’s game, he should not be overlooked as a pro prospect. Since making the full-time switch to linebacker, Onwualu has transformed from strictly a coverage linebacker into an improving EDGE defender with the ability to rush the passer in certain situations. As a junior, he made 9 starts compiling 38 tackles, six for loss, and three sacks. During his senior season, he saw his production increase significantly totaling 76 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss, while also being credited with three sacks.

On film, I see a player with elite special teams and coverage ability at the NFL level, which should be enough to get him drafted in the later rounds. At Notre Dame, he was used predominantly as a rush linebacker due to need, and I am afraid many teams will only see him as a limited, undersized pass rusher. If he has a successful NFL career beyond special teams, it will be as a hybrid linebacker where his sideline-to-sideline speed and coverage ability is utilized. He shows the ability to rush the passer in certain packages due to his closing burst and smarts, but he will not be a 3 down edge defender at his size.

Onwualu showed well at Notre Dame’s Pro Day and answered many questions scouts had about his tweener frame. On the bench press, he put up 24 reps, which would have tied for 3rd best among linebackers at the combine. His 4.73 40-yard dash would have ranked middle of the pack, but his vertical jump, short shuttle, and 60 yard shuttle would have all ranked in the top five at the position.

I have always been higher on Onwualu than most. I think he has some of the best coverage ability of any linebacker in college football the past few years, and his leadership ranks along the lines of former Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley, who was also undervalued during the draft process. Whether or not Onwualu is drafted in this year’s draft remains to be seen, but he will certainly get a shot no matter the result. I will continue to bang the door for him, and believe he can be a successful player in the right situation. If anything, he should carve out a career as a productive special teams player and backup 4-3 WILL linebacker.