Name: James Onwualu
College: Notre Dame
NFL games played: 0
Games played for the Chargers: 0
Fun fact: Onwualu could be considered someone without a position in the NFL - he's probably not fast enough to be a safety, but might not have the size needed to play linebacker.
That 'fun fact' is based off reports from NFL Scouts, and I completely disagree with it. Onwualu might not have run very quickly in his 40-yard dash (he ran just a 4.73 at his Pro Day), but he's a much better athlete than that time indicates. Onwualu wasn't always a linebacker - in fact, he's probably the most versatile player on the Chargers. Onwualu was an 'Athlete' in High School, playing RB, WR, DB, and KR. He stood out enough at WR to be listed there at Notre Dame, seeing time at WR in all 12 games of his True Freshman year. Notre Dame coaches decided after that season that Onwualu would be better suited at LB - and he hasn't looked back since - but if you're fast enough to play WR for a good team in college, you're fast enough to play safety in the NFL.
I also disagree with the bit about Onwualu being too small to play as an LB. He stands at 6'1, 232 lbs. Jatavis Brown - who plays the same position and had a phenomenal rookie year - stands at 5'11, 227 lbs. If you're good enough, you're big enough.
The concern with Onwualu is less about his size and more about his strength. Lance Zierlein listed these as some of his weaknesses: "Can be engulfed and thwarted by size. Will struggle to disengage from NFL power. Utilized as pass rusher and blitzer in college but lacks the frame to convert speed to power as a pro. Play strength near line of scrimmage is below average."
The main reason for optimism with Onwualu seems to be less about his ability as an LB, and more to do with his Special Teams ability. Indeed, if he is to crack the Chargers 53, it will likely be in the 'Nick Dzubnar' role - a backup LB who's a standout Special Teams performer. He was superb on Special Teams in college, and knows that's where his home could initially lie in the NFL:
"Every defensive rookie really has to do some special teams work. I don’t shy away from that. That’s why I’m at where I’m at... making an impact on special teams as well as having a role on defense. It’s big because as a rookie you want to be able to do as many things as possible and give them an opportunity for me to fill a couple of different roles. I definitely push that, and just being that accountable player that I’ve been here and bringing it to the next level.”
Off the field, Onwaulu graduated with a degree in finance from Notre Dame, and his LinkedIn page describes himself as being "interested in the complexities of the business world and the major markets that structure the economy." Onwaulu might be a smart player with a high football IQ, but he's equally as intelligent off the field.
In fact, One of the reasons Onwaulu chose Notre Dame was because of how strong their academic side of things is. Sure, it was partially a football decision, but Onwaulu and his family also wanted somewhere that they knew he'd be able to get a first-rate education. This is someone who even from a young age - and being labeled as one to watch for the future as a football player - was thinking about his life after football. That's incredibly commendable.
Onwaulu spent a month as a 'Summer Financial Analyst' interning with Merrill Lynch, who manage an astounding $2.2 trillion in client assets. That's going to be one of the most competitive internship any student could apply for, let alone a 'student-athlete,' and the fact that Onwaulu was able to get it shows that he's not just smart for a football player. He's smart. Period.
That internship must have been incredibly grueling for Onwaulu, considering he had to be in the office by 6 AM most days. I'm a college student who doesn't play football, and waking up while the sun is still out is a challenge. He'd clock off at 6 PM, but there was still the athletic side to take care of, and so Onwaulu would work out in the office basement. He'd get home at around 9 PM - ready to do the same thing again tomorrow.
At the end of the day, Onwaulu is just a good, intelligent, hard-working person. I genuinely don't know if he has a future in football, but I don't think it matters all that much. James Onwaulu will be just fine - whatever happens.