All eyes were on Deshone Kizer yesterday when representatives from 27 NFL teams descended upon Notre Dame for the annual Pro Day – and he did well enough according to some scouts to stay int he 1st round. Isaac Rochell would have garnered some attention if he was able to fully participate and Jarron Jones lost attention when he appeared to be out of shape. Former captain James Onwualu didn’t create much buzz and he might not even get drafted, but he could end up having a longer pro career than all of them.
James Onwualu tested OK yesterday. OneFootDown did an extensive post on all of Onwualu’s numbers and where they stack up so no need to restate all of them here. One that is worth noting though is that he put up 24 reps of 225 in the bench press. That would have been third among linebackers at the Combine had Onwualu been invited Apparently Paul Longo’s system was not lost on all Notre Dame football players.
The morale of the story though, is Onwualu tested like a middle of the pack of linebacker without any eye popping measurables.
So why do I think he could end up having a sneaky long NFL career? Because Onwualu has a work ethic that is second to none who could carve out a role as a special teams ace and NFL teams have been showing a willingness to pay for such players in recent years.
James Onwualu cut his teeth on the college level by being a nightmare on special teams in 2013 while his full time gig was on offense. Onwualu showed such a knack on special teams that he was moved to defense that off-season. Ever since then Onwualu has been improving as a defender and his best football is still very much ahead of him.
This past fall, Onwualu was one of the few bright spots on defense for Notre Dame. As a senior the captain racked up a career high 11.5 tackles for loss from his weak-side linebacker spot. That led Notre Dame and was an improvement from the 6.0 he had in 2015. His tackle total nearly doubled in 2016 too from 38 to 75. He was also second in sacks with 3.0. While that total is not impressive for a defenses’s 2nd highest total, it still showcases that Onwualu was one of the defense’s few playmakers.
It may surprise some to hear me suggest Onwualu could have a long pro career since I’ve spent the last two off-seasons depth chart engineering a host of other linebackers to pass him in the Notre Dame lineup. Part of the reason for that though was because Onwualu’s size made it difficult to hold up against bigger teams. His official weigh in of 228 lbs highlights that.
That weight also highlights that Onwualu could be slimming down for more of speciality role in the NFL. He weighed in at 232 lbs on the official roster in 2016. Side note, Onwualu would be a very, very intriguing option at the ROVER position in Mike Elko’s new Notre Dame defense. Alas, that special teams role in 2013 didn’t afford Onwualu a 5th year in 2017.
James Onwualu could very easily go undrafted next month. In fact, it would be more surprising if he did get drafted than if he didn’t. He is not an every down linebacker on the pro level. That said, he will be a highly sought after undrafted free agent who could very easily find himself on a NFL roster this fall and for falls to come as a Swiss Army Knife, utility type linebacker and special teams maven if he wants to be.
The life of a special teams gunner/specialist in the NFL is not the most glamourous or the most lucrative. While NFL teams are willing to pay for such specialists, they don’t shell out big bucks for them. If Onwualu wants it though, he can have that kind of NFL career. The kind of career where six, seven years from now we hear his name called on a punt coverage and say, “damn, James Onwualu is still in the NFL?”