Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2016

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 28 of 99 PRESEASON 2016 29 Last year, Onwualu was overshad- owed at linebacker while the other two starters — Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith at Will and fifth-year se- nior Joe Schmidt at Mike — were team captains. He might not be as vocal as Schmidt and very few linebackers in college football possess the skill set of Smith, but Onwualu is somewhat a hybrid of the two and has been con- sistently cited by the coaching staff as a prime leader with his selflessness and smarts. The Mike linebacker is the quarterback of the defense, so all eyes are on junior Nyles Morgan taking on that new role in place of Schmidt. Meanwhile, sophomores Asmar Bilal and Te'von Coney are trying to help fill the immense vacancy left by Smith. Junior Greer Martini can play any of the three spots — he will start at Will — and he split time with Onwualu at Sam last year. Onwualu took 501 snaps and was more like a "big nickel" while recording 38 tackles (six for loss). Mar- tini was inserted against triple-option teams and more in short-yardage situa- tions with 314 snaps and 35 tackles (2.5 for loss). "It really depends week to week, what different offenses are going to try to throw at us," Onwualu said of the job description at Sam. "Just trying to set the edge of the defense, be more of a flat defender, more into the cover stuff than other linebackers would be." Some popular opinion or wishful thinking, depending how you look at it, has the Fighting Irish defense be- coming better overall in 2016 despite maybe lacking the star power of 2015. "I share that confidence simply be- cause we've got so many younger guys now that are so hungry," said On- wualu, noting how the defense has a balance of seasoned veterans like him- self, linemen Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones, and cornerback Cole Luke to complement a plethora of new figures like Morgan, among many others. "The competition level has just continued to get higher and higher each year. When you know you have great players be- low you and try to learn from you — even take your spot — then that bumps the guy in front even more. "As long as we can communicate that to the younger guys, I think it will make us a better defense." For Onwualu, the objective is not necessarily about doing the spectacular, but doing the basics consistently well. Accomplishing the latter will make the former more likely. "Just making sure each play we're communicating what we need to com- municate, and each play we're focusing on what our red alerts are," Onwualu said. "Sometimes in a game or in a practice, you've run it so many times that you can kind of blow it off and you can be, 'Alright, I know what's going on.' But really focusing in, because you never know what you're going to get." Just like at the receiver position. ✦ After making four starts as a freshman wide receiver, Onwualu has 17 starts at Sam linebacker the past two years. PHOTO BY ANDREW IVINS

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