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Notre Dame Football

Jason Onye Ready for “Make-It-or-Break-It” Season at Notre Dame

April 21, 2023

Jason Onye might be the least experienced player on Notre Dame’s roster, with just four seasons of football under his belt. 

He transferred to Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I., as a sophomore to play basketball but figured he’d give football a shot for the first time in his life.

Onye served as a backup defensive end before earning his first-ever start in the state championship game. 

He became a national recruit as a junior, garnering offers from Penn State, Tennessee, Michigan, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Then lost valuable development opportunities once the COVID-19 pandemic canceled football activities in 2020.

Onye enrolled at Notre Dame in the spring of 2021, pushing 290 pounds and 27% body fat. His top priorities were reshaping his body and playing catch up in terms of developing his technique.

“I came from Rhode Island, played two years of football,” Onye said. “It's true, I just wanted to come here, understand and adjust to everything. And I came in first playing end, then I gained weight, so I was at 3-tech, and then I'm playing nose.”

After two years at Notre Dame, Onye feels he’s for a role on Saturdays. Despite his limited experience, he walked into the Irish Athletic Center on March 22 with a chip on his shoulder.

“Coming into the first day of spring ball, I knew that this season was like a make-it-or-break-it, to be honest,” Onye said. “Can I say that? Like realistically, beforehand, there was a bunch of guys, older guys, ahead of me. That's understandable, and now I'm a junior, I have to like come in and play.”

To do so, he upped his preparation in the offseason.

He weighed 275 pounds at the end of 2022. In April, he jumped up to 292 pounds at 12% body fat, a dramatic transformation from when he first arrived.

“A huge shout out to Coach Balis and Alexa [Appleman], our nutritionist,” Onye said, “because I had to meet with them extra to make sure that like go like yeah working in the weight room and stuff, yeah, but it's mostly nutrition.

“I really didn't eat that much. I had to meet with Alexa [to] make a dining hall plan. Like what to eat, during when, after extra food, after extra shakes and stuff.”

Coming into Notre Dame with limited football experience, Onye didn’t understand the importance of pad level or how to use his hands properly. 

This spring, he feels comfortable with his technique and comprehension of the defensive playbook. It’s to the point that he can line up at defensive tackle without thinking about what to do with his hands or feet. He can just play.

“The technique was always wonky,” Onye said. “Now, I feel like I've been like, Coach Wash has helped me refine my technique and stuff and make sure to like to show me what's important.”

Now, he can take full advantage of his size and strength. 

“I think I've been a pretty strong person,” Onye said. “So the main thing was just learning how to use it. So by staying low and by making sure your hands are in the right spots, and all those kinds of things, that's why I can do it faster now.”

Onye, of course, began his Notre Dame career as a defensive end. Most defenders get disappointed when they’re asked to slide inside, where it is more difficult to make game-changing tackles. 

But he sees his position change as a unique opportunity to wreck havoc.

“I like it a lot,” Onye said. “I just love how you can really make an impact. Everyone's like, 'Oh, you're playing nose; you're probably not going to make many plays', but if you're a good nose, you can do some stuff. It's crazy. Because no one's expecting any pressure from the nose. Like a QB seeing the nose come in their face, it's just crazy. It's just cool, unexpected.”

In two years, Onye’s played eight defensive snaps for the Irish — all of which came in Notre Dame’s 44-0 victory over Boston College last fall. 

Now’s he competing with Gabriel Rubio and others for first-team reps. Given his recent development, it’s fair to say Onye is ascending the depth chart. 

“He's trending well,” Irish defensive line coach Al Washington said. “I'll let his play do the talk, but he's fun to work with. It wasn't handed, man. Last year, he's come a long way. Wasn't happy all the time. Wasn't playing. 

“He kind of bunkered in there and didn't complain, didn't run, just anchored down and got better. He's gotta keep doing that. He's been a joy.”

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