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Thursday, April 18, 2024
The Observer

Elmer, Onwualu benefit from early enrollment

Midway through their freshman campaigns, Irish receiver James Onwualu and offensive lineman Steve Elmer already seem like veterans. After enrolling early in the spring, both players have thrived in the transition to Notre Dame and onto the field.

Onwualu, a four-star recruit rated as the top player coming out of his home state of Minnesota by ESPN, has recorded three special-teams tackles for the Irish this season. Irish coach Brian Kelly has spoken about Onwualu's significant improvements since the beginning of camp, an improvement that has encompassed both physical and mental aspects. Having never lifted weights before, Onwualu relied on senior receivers TJ Jones and Daniel Smith for direction in the weight room during his first weeks on campus. 

Even more significant than his physical gains thus far has been his improved understanding of the game, Onwualu said. 

"I definitely think that comes through film and being around some of the other guys," Onwualu said. "Being around TJ Jones and some of those guys that know the offense to the 'T,' almost as well as some of the coaches, and listening to them every day and the conversations that go on in our meeting room with [Irish outside wide receivers] coach [Mike] Denbrock between the older guys, just picking up on that and taking notes and just trying to pick up as much as I can, that's helpful."

Onwualu has looked beyond the current Irish roster, as well, for advice. A product of Cretin-Derham Hall High School in Saint Paul, Onwualu has been in touch with another former Irish receiver who went to Cretin-Derham Hall: current Arizona Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd.

"I mean, he just continues to tell me to work hard, just do what I can every day to get better and continuing to play my best," Onwualu said. 

Elmer has also relied on his older counterparts for guidance and instruction during his time on campus, both to learn the playbook and to adjust to the physical differences from high school.

"We are doing a lot more stuff now, just playbook-wise, obviously from high school," the Midland, Mich., native said. "And then physically, there's no [Irish defensive lineman] StephonTuitts in Midland, so it's a little bit different from that aspect, as well."

Coming out of high school, the 6-foot-5.5, 317-pound Elmer was the 26th-best offensive tackle in the country, according to ESPN. In an Irish uniform, however, Elmer has seen time at multiple positions along the line. 

"I've been bouncing around a little bit, but it's been great for learning the playbook and learning what everyone needs to do to adjust," Elmer said. 

"It's good to get to know both [the tackle and guard] positions, because then you kind of know where everyone else is on the football field. I find that really is helpful to understanding the offense, just getting experience on both sides of the ball, the right and the left, the tackle and the guard."

Elmer has played in four games this season and, against Arizona State on Oct. 5, spelled senior offensive lineman Christian Lombard at right guard against Sun Devils defensive lineman Will Sutton, a highly-touted NFL prospect. 

Elmer stressed the benefit of enrolling in the spring and added the players and staff around him have made his first half-season a successful one. 

"I wouldn't say it's easy, but we've got great coaches, we've got great leadership from older guys, other guys on the line," he said. "It's a real team effort getting guys caught up to speed."

Contact Joseph Monardo at