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November 16, 2016

James Onwualu

South Bend, Indiana

Q. Yesterday Coach Kelly was talking about he finally saw an edge to the team that he was looking for all season, playing with an edge. What in your perspective, what does that mean?
JAMES ONWUALU: I think Coach Kelly has a bar of what he thinks the energy, execution, and there's a bunch of different categories within that, but putting all of that together I think is what he's really talking about, and there's been games where we've lacked one area and had the other or vice versa, so I think we kind of pulled it all together in this past game and played all around a good game as a team.

Q. What allowed it to come together? Why now?
JAMES ONWUALU: I don't really have an answer for that. We knew that we were just working towards something and working towards being the best team that we could be, and I think it's just starting to kind of shape around, and guys are starting to realize how talented we can really be.

Q. With your career, the position changes, everything else you've gone through, what were the difficult points in that? What were the parts that were hard to get through and get to the point of where you're at now?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I think for me, some of the difficult parts is just finding the confidence, right, to jump into making a position switch. I made that decision, and I went upstairs and talked to Coach about it. Who knows where I'd be if I didn't find the confidence to go and have that discussion and have confidence in myself to take on a challenge like that. So that whole challenge was difficult. Then obviously this year has been a challenge as well just with our situation, but two great challenges that I've learned a ton from and wouldn't change.

Q. What would you tell a young guy, maybe a freshman who's on the team now before you leave, that they've come to to make a position change, what would you tell him as some advice that maybe you didn't know four years ago that you want to let somebody in on?
JAMES ONWUALU: I wouldn't say not that I didn't know, but I'd say more of just having confidence in the coaches, and they've been in the game for so long, and I was questioning some things when I was switching positions, and it's difficult. It's totally different way of the game and way to play. So just having confidence that they know what they're doing and they're going to coach you to the best of their ability to make sure that you're performing for the team.

Q. James, you kind of mentioned it after BVG got fired in September that he was one of the guys who really helped you along in your transition, in your position switch. When you think back to the start of it in maybe January, February of 2014, what did his support kind of mean to you during that period?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah. Well, through that time obviously you're pretty much failing every single day. Like I'm coming in, never back pedaled in my life really, didn't know much about defense, maybe just normal coverages, but yeah, you're pretty much coming in and failing every single day, so to have somebody like Coach VanGorder who is working you through that process and continuing to give you confidence, and hey, you're learning this today and you've improved here, but also at the same time pushing you. And Kyle McCarthy was another guy that really helped me and spent some time. So I think those coaches' presence and their continuation to work with me gave me confidence through the process.

Q. How much did some of your other teammates at that point, whether was Jalen or Jarrett Grace or Joe Schmidt kind of help you through that transition, too?
JAMES ONWUALU: I think a ton because I never hit a sled. I never did like linebacker footwork, linebacker drills. So that stuff, finding comfort in that stuff I think is where I found it more with Joe and Jalen and Jarrett, guys like that that spent some time like hey, like work this little step when you're going into this drill or try this technique when we're doing this part of practice. So I think that's where they really came in.

Q. So basically like the things you're talking about there, you didn't have any idea of what you were doing in spring practice 2014, you didn't know how to hit a sled, how to do any of that stuff?
JAMES ONWUALU: It was all new for me. I see myself as a pretty quick learner, so it came to me pretty quick, and it was natural and it was a good transition, but obviously like I wasn't doing it like Jarrett Grace because he was probably like four years old hitting the sled out in the backyard. So it was new. It was new. It was different than running routes all day and it was a different mentality. So they helped me with that a ton.

Q. Have you had a moment yet during the season to kind of sit back and reflect on your time here or do you think that'll come after the season?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, you know, going into senior weekend, I think that's kind of coming among a lot of us seniors, and I try to once a week, just on Sundays go down to the Grotto, if it's by myself or with Martini or anybody on the team and just kind of spend some time to think about how lucky I am to be at a school like this and to have accomplished all that I did and have the opportunities that I have, so try my best to do it once a week and just kind of really think about how lucky I am.

Q. Where do you feel you've grown this year, in terms of your linebacking skills?
JAMES ONWUALU: I think that before I was just the kind of do-your-job kind of guy. I would hold the edge. I would fit my gap. I'd pressure when I was supposed to pressure. But I never really went out of my way to make a play. I think this year I've been playing much more loose, much more flexible, and it's shown with the plays that I've been making.

Q. When you do leave this linebacking corps, how confident are you in the guys who will replace you, specifically Nyles Morgan leading that group?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah. Nyles is going to be a great leader, but also Greer Martini, that's a kid that comes to work every single day and shows the linebacker corps how to work. It's tough to come to practice, especially through a season like this, but Greer's been a guy that's backed me up on the energy, the execution. People say he can play any position, he honestly comes to practice every day, works as hard as he can and keeps other players accountable. So between those two guys, I've got all the confidence in the world that the linebacker room will continue in the direction that it has.

Q. Did your move a couple years ago now put you in better position to play professional football?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I believe so. If I was a receiver, I had two catches my freshman year, maybe would have had three or four my sophomore and maybe come up with a big senior season of 10 catches. So yeah, I feel so much more comfortable on the defensive side. It kind of fits my mentality a little bit more. Like I was saying earlier, I've learned so much about ball sense, and I would like to see myself as one of the smarter linebackers in the country. So I think that definitely helps me thinking about the next step.

Q. They don't pay receivers to block in the NFL.
JAMES ONWUALU: I don't think so. If they do, then I'll look at that.

Q. And actually Coach Kelly mentioned he thought because of your special teams ability which you've had to be pulled away from this year and your growth as linebacker that you've set yourself up for that future, he kind of made an offhand comment he's not sure you want to play professional football.
JAMES ONWUALU: I meanwhile we're in the building we focus on -- and I'm still here. I've got two games to get a win and hopefully be bowl eligible. So that's really the focus between a lot of us seniors, and I can speak for Isaac and all those guys. We're really focused on finishing our career here strong and really leaving our mark and impact on some of these players throughout these last couple weeks and hopefully into a bowl game. And those are the conversations that I'll have with Coach Kelly after that, but really just try to do everything that I can to improve this program and play my role here. So yeah, I definitely do desire to play in the National Football League, and it will be something that I'll be chasing here in a few months, but as of now just trying to finish up the career on a high note.

Q. And I asked Mike this as well, four years as a player basic, three years as a starter. Some games you can just look back on you know five or ten years down the line that you are going to remember playing, some stand out to you?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, absolutely. Unfortunately, a lot of those games we've lost, but I think that kind of comes into play a little bit, because you put so much into a game and then you end up losing it, so that's the ones that you really feel and are flying home not very happy, and that's what you kind of remember. But I'd say Florida State, unreal environment, super fun. Michigan here was one that was a blast. Night game, blew 'em out. That was one that we won and will be memorable. And then also Clemson, hurricane, unbelievable environment, top-notch programs playing headed up, and I think those are a few games that I'll always remember. There's a ton from each year. I was just trying to get some film on getting the TV copies so I can go back and watch them in the future. But there's a ton of games that I've really enjoyed here.

Q. James, you guys always take great pride in treating every game the same. Considering it's your last home game, can you treat it the same this weekend?
JAMES ONWUALU: I would like to say yes, but it's difficult. I've really invested in this program, and for it to be my last time going on the walk and there's so many lasts all in one weekend that it's tough not to take those in and kind of cherish them for the last time. But there's nothing I want more than getting a win in my last game in that stadium. So that's what I'm really trying to focus on, and we can celebrate the accomplishments after for my career and for all the seniors' career. So I'm really looking forward to a win, though.

Q. In previous years did you ever take note of how some of the seniors were reacting to their last game here?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah. I think, you know, it's definitely an emotional weekend. You try to keep it together as much as possible, but then you've got mom crying and then your brothers over there hugging you, and it kind of becomes a sap moment for a little bit, and I'm sure that'll happen. But refocussing back for the game is important. You know, like I said, it's a lot for a weekend, but you try to control it as much as possible.

Q. What are the biggest priorities against this offense this weekend? I know they have three wide receivers that have been really, really good in their careers.
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah. Done well.

Q. And this year. What are the focal points for you guys this week?
JAMES ONWUALU: You know, we've done a better job at defending on the perimeter, and that's exactly what we're going to have to do this weekend, their perimeter offense, they try to get the ball on screens, or hitches, slants, whatever it is. So defending those guys on the edges is going to be important as well as containing the quarterback, pretty good player, so --

Q. You just touched on it a minute ago how the games that you're going to remember I guess the most are a lot of the ones that you've lost, and I kind of wanted to see if you could elaborate on just how you think that failure and adversity eventually lead to success for you personally.
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah. I think each loss makes every win even better, for me at least. You put so much into it. This game's so unique just because you're working out and training for just 12 guaranteed -- well, not even guaranteed, but 12 events that you're going to be able to perform and put on a show. So when you kind of let yourself down, you sometimes feel like you let yourself down or your teammates down and it's never a good feeling, but from that that's what pushes you to get back to work and try to continue to evolve as a player and be more productive and be the player that you need to be. So I think that's what those losses and difficulties in this game really push you to do is just continue to be a better player, and keeps you real. It's tough to be an amazing football team or player consistently. You know, you see a lot of guys have a little fault here with some ups and downs. Unlike basketball where guys score 30 points every single night, it's not that easy in this game. So like I said, it just continues to push you to know that you always can be better.

Q. I'm sure you'd rather have won those games that you lost, but do you feel like you need that failure and adversity in order to have success, like you need to do those things?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I think you can get it from a lot of different lessons, though. You have that in the off season as well, challenging off seasons put you in that situation as well. I think we need a little bit less of that, and I think we will have a little bit less of that in the future here. So I think focusing on the off season and having some of those challenges prepare us for the season will lead to having a few less of those during the actual season.

Q. And now, Mike was just in here and he talked a little bit about kind of the small victories that you guys can take away from this season, and I just wanted to know if you felt the same way and what you would view as some of those small victories.
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah. I mean there's been a lot to learn from this season, especially for the captains and some of the older leaders. For me, I think -- I've said this before, but it just comes back to really finding the love and passion in what you're doing. When everything's not going very well, it's pretty easy to break down, and vice versa, when something's going really well, it's easy to be a leader and it's easy to be the all-star player, but when things aren't going very well, it's tough to show up every single day and have a smile on your face and work and get other guys to work around and still push themselves to become better players. So I think for me within my room I've done a good job of keeping the guys focused on continuing to become better players and playing our role in this game. So that's a small accomplishment I see in myself. And as the whole team, I think a small accomplishment for the whole team is just that we haven't stopped. There's not a guy on the team that I would say has quit on what this season is. They still come to work and still are trying to become better players. I think you don't really see that in a lot of other programs.

Q. And Mike also said that it easily could have gone the other way.
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah. Exactly.

Q. So how did you guys make sure that it didn't? Was there something that was said? I know there's a lot of talk of leadership, and of course, the senior leaders are excellent here, but is there something that happened to make sure that it didn't go the other way?
JAMES ONWUALU: No. I think it's just the culture of what we have here, and like you said, the leaders and people on the team. Not even really just the leaders, but the younger guys, like I said earlier, Martini buys in to continuing to work, and it's those younger guys that buy in that keep the program going. It can be ten older guys saying, come on, let's go, let's go win this game. But if you don't have some of these younger guys helping you on special teams and within all the other aspects of the game, it's really tough to keep the program heading in the right direction.

Q. Yesterday Coach Kelly said that you and Isaac were the guys that kept this thing together, the hardest workers during the most trying times. To hear that from your head coach, that kind of compliment, what does that mean to you?
JAMES ONWUALU: It means a ton. That's kind of what I base my life off of, right? When things aren't working out, you just work harder. And it means a lot. And that's what I've really tried to focus on. Like I said, it's a small victory in my book to have just showed up with confidence and work as hard as I possibly can to help the program every single day, so for him to recognize that means a ton.

Q. What do you think running in that tunnel, greeting your family is going to be like?
JAMES ONWUALU: The first time running out of the tunnel was crazy. I feel like this one is going to be even more crazy, because it's the last time, and especially to have two of the people that I love the most in the world out there waiting for me, who I know are extremely proud of me will be very, very rewarding.

Q. And then when you look at the improvement of the defense, what do you point to of the areas where you feel like you guys have improved at the most that has allowed the overall defense to turn things around?
JAMES ONWUALU: You know, I hate to put it on the back end, just because that means that they would have had to come back from something, but I think Cole and Drew and some of those guys have done a really, really, really good job of taking some of the new coaching and really implementing it into our game and doing a much better job of containing the ball and keeping it in front of them and playing some routes that are difficult to play. So I hate to say, like I said, that the DBs have really stepped up, but they've gone to work the past couple of weeks, and I think we'll see that this weekend.

Q. As a senior how much do you want to have three games left in your career, not two, how much do you want to get to that bowl game?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I want to get to the bowl game pretty bad, just to have another opportunity to wear a gold helmet and have some more time. Like bowl practices you don't really have school. You're kind of hanging out here with your friends and just playing football, and that's what college sports is all about. So that would be ideal, but I think everybody on the team is just with their competitive mindset wants to win out and beat two great teams in the next two weeks.

Q. And then when you look at where you guys were to the possibility of getting to the bowl game, what do you think if you guys were to win these last two games and get to a bowl game, how big of accomplishment do you think that would be considering where you were at one point this season?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, I think it's huge, just the turnaround and being a solution to this whole thing. It would be very nice to see that some of the work we've put in led to something, you know, something that we can hold onto and have another opportunity to compete, like I said.

Q. And finally for me, just making that transition back from the option for a couple of weeks in a row to traditional offense, what are the difficulties in that, and then how much have you guys -- how hard has it been, I guess, in this last day to just get back to facing that?
JAMES ONWUALU: Yeah, just getting a little rust off, I think. We spent some more time with the offense going ones versus ones as well as having some individual sections that like I said working the rust off, doing some of the individual drills that allow you to get back into some of those movements. Like I was talking to Julian Love, and he was up playing a totally different position, so his first move was forward like mine was and now he's back there pedalling again, so it just takes a day, couple periods to get used to it.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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