James Onwualu's secret

Norte Dame commit doesn't lift weights, but strength key to his game

Originally Published: April 9, 2012
By Jared Shanker | ESPN RecruitingNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- He stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 210 pounds, nearly all of it muscle. He is a game changer at both receiver and running back for Minnesota power St. Paul Cretin-Derham Hall. He was one of Notre Dame's first commitments in the 2013 class.

And yet James Onwualu says there is one secret to his strength that will surprise people.

"I've never lifted a weight in my life and I'm still 215," said Onwualu, perhaps giving himself a few extra pounds. .

The key to his success, Onwualu said, is "training hard as hell" with trainer Ted Johnson seven days a week. While many high schoolers spend the weekends relaxing or at a party, Onwualu said he has given up all of that to devote himself to working out and becoming one of the Midwest's top prospects.

[+] EnlargeJames Onwualu
Jared Shanker/ESPN.comJames Onwualu, a Notre Dame commit, mighty not impress on the bench press, but there is no denying his strength.
Onwualu said Johnson, who developed his program more than a decade ago, has taken him under his wing when it comes to working out and each session pushes him to his limits physically and mentally.

At first glance. Onwualu appears lankier than strong, but Johnson says Onwualu is a solid 210 pounds, hovers at 6 percent body fat and is far stronger than many of his more muscular-looking prospects.

"The crazy thing is if you go to YouTube, you can see guys jumping out of the pool all day long," Johnson said. "Just the other day, James jumped out. But they're all adults jumping out of maybe three feet of water. I can send a video of James at 16 years of age exploding out of water 60 times, and just the other day he did it 80 times.

"So now we've moved to four feet, and I've scoured the Internet and there's nobody exploding out of a pool out of four feet of water."

Johnson's program is all movement and technique based. Instead a stack of 45-pound plates, the only weight working against Onwualu is his own frame. The emphasis is improving Onwualu's posterior chain, an area Johnson said is where most athletes suffer injuries at in the collision sports.

At the Under Armour junior combine, Onwualu was one of the worst testers at the bench press, but he ran circles around his competition at the remaining drills.

Surprisingly still, strength is what separates Onwualu from his peers, his quarterback at Cretin-Derham Hall says.

"His strength allows him to break tackles anywhere on the field," quarterback Conor Rhoda said. "He can turn a 10-yard hook into a 60-yard touchdown."

The gripe with normal weight lifting programs, Johnson said, is they are set up to accommodate the lowest common denominator and not the elite athletes. A close friend of former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, Johnson said that was the case with the strength and conditioning program there, and it is the same issue with the programs throughout the country.

"You walk into a facility and see what the philosophy is: They got five million pounds of weights and that's all they do," Johnson said, "and it doesn't necessarily translate into performance. All we need is space."

Onwualu was just 13 when he began working out with Johnson regularly. Onwualu does not take any supplements and is on a strict diet. Johnson requires Onwualu to send him pictures of every meal so it can be analyzed for nutrition, portion size and the time of the day it was eaten.

Johnson does the same with former Cretin-Derhman standout Michael Floyd, who starred at Notre Dame. It has allowed Onwualu to build a strong friendship with Floyd, who often housed Onwualu when he was visiting the South Bend campus.

A running back and receiver at Cretin-Derham, Onwualu said he will most likely fill in at Floyd's old position, the "X" receiver, when he gets to Notre Dame in the fall of 2013. Although not one to be a fiery coaching type, Floyd has been able to pass his knowledge along to Onwualu.

"Mike's not really a guy to be in your face about coaching," Onwualu said. "I've kind of taken the role of sitting back and watching him as a player. He's a great kid and great guy to watch. It's easy to see the things he does and compare it to me. If I ask him he always answers a question."

Onwualu and Floyd's skills aren't especially similar, though. At 6-3 and 224 pounds, Floyd is more of a vertical big-play threat. Onwualu, who has reached 29 mph when sprinting, is more likely to make a big play out of a short-yardage catch.

The goal is for Onwualu to close in on 220 pounds by the time he makes it to Notre Dame. Johnson said Floyd never reached 200 pounds while he worked with him throughout high school. (Johnson is now helping Floyd prepare for the NFL draft, and Floyd invited Johnson to join him for the draft in New York.) Onwualu is much further along at this point than Floyd, who is one of the most prolific receivers to ever attend Notre Dame.

"We want him to impact college football [as a freshman] the same way Mike did," Johnson said. "At every stage of his development -- and I've known Mike since seventh grade -- James is ahead of the curve. He's bigger, faster and 10 times stronger."

Jared Shanker

Florida State/ACC reporter