Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn., has served as a de facto Notre Dame pipeline for more than a decade now, sending the likes of Michael Floyd, Ryan Harris, Matt Carufel, Rashon Powers-Neal and Marcus Freeman to South Bend, Ind. Freshman wide receiver James Onwualu is the latest product of the school to don the blue and gold, but he has one advantage the previous five did not.
Freshman wide receiver James Onwualu has recorded three special teams tackles in six games with the Irish.
He began his career a semester early.
Onwualu took advantage of the university’s early enrollment policy and began classes last January. He said making the transition 10 months ago as opposed to two months ago has drastically helped his progression and comfort with his new surroundings.
“I think everything’s going really well,” said Onwualu, who registered three special teams tackles in the first six games. “[Coming in the spring semester] helped with both football and school, but every day just continuing to practice and getting better, so continuing to settle in.
“I think the coaches do a good job of really planning out our schedule well and giving us the time we need to focus on school but also to focus on ourselves. I’ve felt pretty comfortable throughout the fall so far.”
Onwualu said he keeps in contact with the former Irish players who passed through Cretin-Derham, particularly Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd. The former Irish receiver’s 6-foot-3 build helped him haul in a school-record 271 catches, but Onwualu is working to build strength to complement his 6-foot-1 frame. In fact, he hadn’t picked up a weight prior to enrolling at Notre Dame.
“I felt fine,” Onwualu says when reflecting back on his first day in a weight room last winter. “Some of it, the hang cleans (a barbell exercise) were some of it I had to get used to but TJ Jones and Daniel Smith were people that helped me out with all of that. I got pretty used to it pretty early.”
As Onwualu’s physical build continues to grow, so too does his mental progression in the Irish offense.
“[It’s not] necessarily a jump, but I saw I’ve really grown to understand the game more,” he said. “In high school I may have relied on my athletic ability more than understanding the game and understanding different aspects of the game and how to run different routes and I think I’ve definitely grown in that aspect.”
Like fellow freshman wide receiver Corey Robinson said a week ago, he initially tried to memorize routes before realizing the more daunting — and rewarding — task is learning the concepts of the plays.
“I think I got by with that this spring as did he but we’ve both continued to learn in the film room and continuing to watch together,” Onwualu said. “I think the coaches have done a great job of moving us around. Corey and I have both played different positions from spring to now and I think that helps you understand what’s going on all over.”
Onwualu said the learning curve and the rigor of his freshman year has not deterred him from his decision to attend Notre Dame.
“Coming to a school like this you kind of know [the workload] and I think a lot of the people have the same interests in that they want to succeed in football and in academics and coming here you know that it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “If it were easy, it would be worth nothing. Yes, it can become overwhelming but at the same time I knew what I was getting into with coming to the university.”