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September 14, 2016

James Onwualu

South Bend, Indiana

Q. Last year you guys played for the most part with three linebackers for triple-option teams and B.K. says now he wants to rotate in Asmar, Greer, as well as Te'von. What do each of those guys bring to the linebacking group, and how is it different to have a rotation versus just a set group of guys?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I think the rotation just helps because those guys are a little bit newer to the game, right. So you get ten snaps out of Te'von and then Asmar can give you another ten snaps. So using two linebackers like that can really help with freshness and keeping everybody involved in the game.

Also, I mean, they're both very talented linebackers, right? You're going to get different things out of both of them. So bringing them both into the game helps all of us.

Q. Just two games, how would you evaluate the linebackers group?
JAMES ONWUALU: I think the linebackers have played well. We need to do a little better job of controlling what's going on around us, but I think we're down hill. Nyles has been making plays, I've been making plays, and Te'von played well last week, and Greer the start of the week before that, I think he played pretty well. They both have things that clean up, and we all do. But I think overall the linebackers have played well.

Q. When you hear Michigan State week, what goes through your mind?
JAMES ONWUALU: For me, I mean, I played my freshman year, so I'm pumped to play them again. They're fun to play against. They're a hard-nosed team, and everybody's been saying physical, physical, physical. But it's true. I remember playing special teams against this team my freshman year, like I said. They don't give up on any play.

Q. Broader perspective, what have you learned about what the rivalry means? You seem to have met more than 75 times in their history?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, the rivalry is a great rivalry. When you have two teams that have tradition, no matter what teams they are, we play USC, we play Michigan, we play a lot of teams in the country that have unbelievable tradition. So whenever you have matched up against a team like that, you're really just trying to put on for the University and play the best game you can.

Q. I'm doing a story about the history of the series. Are you aware of the '66, 10-10 tie?
JAMES ONWUALU: A little bit, yeah.

Q. Can you imagine that was No. 1 versus No. 2 late in the season to basically decide a National Championship? Can you imagine playing for a National Championship and the game ending in a tie?
JAMES ONWUALU: No, I cannot. That would be very frustrating.

Q. You've been very active around the line of scrimmage. I think you have three tackles for loss. You're on page for a heck of a number at the end of the year. How much better equipped are you physically now than when you first made that transition to defense?
JAMES ONWUALU: I think I've settled into my body a little bit. As a receiver, you don't really have to maintain your body very much, honestly. You can be as skinny as you want, as long as you're running fast and catching the ball, they don't really care. On defense, on the other hand, you're taking more hits, getting bruised up a little bit more. So it takes a toll on you. There was that transition, but I feel so comfortable in my body right now. Feel good at the weight I'm at, and I think it's showing on the field.

Q. It seems like from day one after you moved to defense, Coach VanGorder was talking you up and really liked what you brought to the defensive side of the football. What, for a guy that was transitioning to the other side of the football, what did you do or what do you think was it that you did to impress him so much so quickly?
JAMES ONWUALU: I think it's just my ability to learn as well as try to execute my job to the best of my ability. Just playing be physical along with all of that. Everybody talks about my size for the past however many years, but no matter how big I've been or what size I've been, I've been physical on every play. I think that's what he's liked and my execution side of it.

Q. How would you describe what your role and your responsibility is on this defense? What does BVG expect out of you on a weekly basis in game situations?
JAMES ONWUALU: Just coming from my specific position or as a leader?

Q. Specifically your position, your physical role.
JAMES ONWUALU: This year I've moved into a couple different roles. So I've played, you saw in Texas I was playing more of a rush linebacker up on the line. This past week playing some more Sam and just being more in my position. But out of the Sam position, just continuing to contain our defense and also give the quarterback different looks in the seam. So trying to help with the safeties, giving different coverage looks and also just pressure off the edge.

Q. Coach Kelly said that one of your big responsibilities as an edge guy is to make sure that things get funneled back to the middle of the field where obviously you'll get help. Can you speak to that responsibility?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, that's probably my biggest responsibility. You let the ball get outside and we have a corner, pretty much, to end the play. So trying to turn the ball back inside to the rest of the guys who are running the ball is very important. You know, that's kind of changed for me throughout the years. It's still very important, but in previous years I've kind of tried to just set the edge and make sure the ball's going back. Now I'm trying to set the edge and make a play. So it's changed a little bit, but still the same job.

Q. You're only one of six players who played in that 2013 game. Obviously a different position. But what do you remember about just overall Michigan State's identity that year? How similar is it to what you've seen on film to this team?
JAMES ONWUALU: Very similar. I think they hold -- that's part of their culture at that university and within their team. Like everybody's saying, the physicality part of it. I mainly played special teams as you guys know. So I remember their special teams being pretty tough. I mean their guys, a lot of teams show up and you can tell how the game's going to go by and how their special teams played. So on the first kickoff, are they coming to knock my head off or are they trying to block me and see what happens? Michigan State is the kind of team that will play every single snap on special teams.

So I remember coming out of that game a little banged up. Felt physically tired and a lot of times playing special teams that doesn't happen. So it says a lot about their team and the culture they have within their locker room.

Q. I think we kind of talked to you guys after the game Saturday about reestablishing your physical nature as a defense. When you're going against a team like Michigan State, how important is that to have that physical nature as a defense?
JAMES ONWUALU: It's important every single week. So we tried to have an emphasis on that no matter who we're playing, but especially with a team like this. You've got to practice tough all week long, so that when Saturday comes long, you're not just trying to flick the switch on. You've already been practicing like that every week.

Q. I want to ask you about Te'von. How do you think he came out of that game against Nevada? And going into this week, what have you seen out of him?
JAMES ONWUALU: He's just trying to get better every single day, which is important. I think that he played well in the game. Could have had him play -- there were some opportunities for him to make a couple more plays and he knows that. He knows he's a game behind on tackles and he could have made up for that. He's working every single day to learn how to make those plays and how to take that picture before the play begins so that he can.

Q. I'm sure you've been in games before, especially last year where you had a better performance in the second half defensively, is that settling in? I mean as a defense, not just you, is that part of settling in on defense? You held down Clemson in the second half. Ohio State didn't score a touchdown in the final 20 minutes. How do you get guys to settle in faster against a physical team like that?
JAMES ONWUALU: I don't know if it's really the physicality about it when talking about settling in. I think a lot of offenses tried to give us a bunch of different looks in the first half. They go and they look and say these two worked, let's go with this. You kind of saw it last week and they tried to throw a bunch. We were playing triple option out of nowhere. Obviously that didn't work.

But teams try to throw a lot at you in the first half and then kind of go with their main stays in the second half, which is obviously what we kind of practice for. So settling in in that manner, yes. But physicality-wise I think it starts from the beginning of the game. In the second half I think that Notre Dame just lasts longer when we're playing offenses.

Q. Obviously you're at linebacker, but the secondary, losing another player this week with DeShone going down. What do you say to the guys in the secondary? Obviously a lot of youth back there. But to kind of be ready to go for a big game like this?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, it's next man in and no matter what season it is we're always going to face things like this. It's unfortunate to see a guy like Crawford go down just because he's battled an injury already and he's such a great player. So it's unfortunate to see that and he will be missed. But just trying to get these guys to grow up pretty quick and make them realize how serious college football is.

Q. How much does it help going through the Texas game with the youthful team that you guys have gone through the experience of that really big-game atmosphere? Obviously, you lost the game, but everyone got that experience. How much does that help for the younger guys on the team, do you think?
JAMES ONWUALU: I think it helps a ton. They have an idea of how that game kind of goes. Just need to give them a little bit of a taste of how it feels to win a game like that. So I know we're going to be playing four quarters against Michigan State this weekend, and hopefully they can learn how to win.

Q. What are you expecting the atmosphere to be like Saturday night under the lights of the stadium?
JAMES ONWUALU: I'm pumped to get back under the lights at home. It was fun to be back home last weekend and get the win. But there's nothing like a night game or the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium. I think everyone's going to be super pumped to be back, and especially playing Michigan State, two mid-west teams. So I'm pumped.

I think the stadium's going to be rocking. Everybody keeps on saying that it's louder. I don't know if it's because of the construction or what the deal is, but I kind of felt that as well.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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