Perhaps if there is anyone who deserves an invite to Notre Dame Stadium in the fall of 2021, it’s Malik Hill.
After all, It was Hill who encouraged his longtime friend Jason Onye to give football a shot and join Hill at practice when the two were approaching their sophomore year at Bishop Hendricken.
Until then, Onye hadn’t thought about playing football at Hendricken. He had played just one year of organized football back when he was in the fourth grade. He stopped after one year to focus on his basketball.
“Malik told me I should come to football practice with him and check it out,” said Onye. “The first couple of days of practice we were just running, doing conditioning and things like that, so that was fine. But once we put on pads and they started running plays, I was so confused.”
Onye’s not confused anymore.
Less than two years after he put on cleats and attended his first high school football practice, he became the most highly recruited high school football player in Rhode Island. After receiving offers from nearly 20 of the top Division I programs in the country, the 6’5″, 245 pound defensive end put all speculation to rest last week when he announced his commitment to Notre Dame.
— Jason Onye (@jason_onye) May 7, 2020
“Notre Dame is getting a kid who has a very high ceiling with so much potential,” said Hendricken coach Keith Croft. “Jason’s best days of football are ahead of him. He is going to grow and get bigger and stronger. Jason is a high quality kid whose teammates love being around him. He is very coachable and approachable. He has no ego.”
Although he had little to no experience when he began playing football at Hendricken, he possessed the physical attributes of a football player. His tremendous athleticism and strength stood out immediately. The potential was there.
“Coach Croft saw it right away. He told my dad I could be good if I stuck to it,” said Onye.
So he stuck to it, and gave football a shot.
“He was a big kid who made progress all year long,” said Croft.
By the end of his first season of organized football he earned a start in the Division I Super Bowl, which resulted in a victory over rival La Salle. That spring he attended Michigan’s satellite camp at the University of Rhode Island. That’s when Onye’s life changed. Michigan offered Onye on the spot.
“Everything changed then,” said Onye. “I was thinking about small Division I schools at the time, but after Michigan offered, I started thinking I should dream bigger.”
He didn’t need to dream. This was reality now. Notre Dame, Tennessee, Penn State, Virginia Tech, Ole Miss, Kentucky and other big time programs were all knocking on the door.
Onye’s size, length, strength, character and perhaps most of all, his potential, are what led to interest from nearly every prestigious program in the country.
“We knew Jason had potential. But we had no idea it would be like this. Once Michigan offered, it was a whole new ball game,” said Croft. “Just about every school in the country showed interest.”
Onye admits it was overwhelming. He received support and advice from several former Hawks who ran the same route before him, including Truss (Georgia) , Lee Moses (UMASS) and Paye (Michigan).
“They helped me a lot. After Michigan offered, I was worried what would happen if I didn’t have a good (junior) season. I was starting to feel the pressure. But X, Lee and Kwity told me not to worry. They told me Michigan saw something special in me. They helped me focus and how to handle so many things during the recruiting process.”
Onye didn’t show any signs of pressure on the field, only improvement. He continued to advance dramatically in a short period of time. In only his second season playing organized, competitive football, he had 76 tackles and 15 sacks and again helped Hendricken secure another state title and was named first team All-State.
The Three Star Recruit then headed to the basketball court. His plan was to visit schools, including Notre Dame, after the basketball season. But the Coronavirus pandemic, which put an abrupt end to Onye’s basketball season right in the midst of the playoffs, shutdown the entire country and prevented him from taking any visits to a college campus this spring.
The recruiting process took a different route – for everyone. Like many, Onye made his decision sight unseen. He has never been to South Bend, stepped foot on the campus or stood in the stadium and looked up in the stands that house 80,795 fans. But there was no hesitation at all when it came time to choose where he would continue his education and football career.
The relationship he built with Notre Dame’s coaching staff , including head coach Bryan Kelly and defensive line Coach Mike Elston played a crucial role in Onye’s decision making.
“The coaches actually came to Hendricken twice. No one does that. Some coaches don’t come to Rhode Island at all,” said Onye. “And I really liked the way they treated me and my family. We have developed a strong relationship and that is very important to me. I know the coaches, I trust the coaches, My (Hendricken) coaches trust the coaches. My parents love the coaches. At the end of the day, I knew exactly where I wanted to go.”
What Notre Dame offered off the field was equally as important to Onye. In addition to the Fighting Irish’s storied football program, he was pleased with Notre Dame’s solid academic program. Onye is interested in studying finance and business management and was impressed by Notre Dame’s business school, one of the top in the country.
“I looked at what would provide me the best opportunity to excel on the field and in the classroom and prepare me for life after college,” said Onye.
“Notre Dame is a special place. The coaches have been phenomenal through the recruiting process,” said Croft. “I’m very happy for Jason. Aside from football, Notre Dame is a good academic fit. Jason’s a really good student . He has aspirations outside of football and Notre Dame has a tremendous track record turning out quality products.”
With his college decision now behind him, he will focus on his final season at Hendricken in the fall. He hopes to lead the Hawks to another straight Super Bowl title and in doing so prepare himself for his rookie season at Notre Dame.
“I am going to work on refining my abilities,” said Onye. “I understand why everyone talks about my potential. It’s because I haven’t had that much organized coaching.”
Just two years, in fact.
“I look forward to seeing where his career unfolds when he is coached in a year round college program of that level,” said Croft. “I am intrigued how he will grow physically, how his body will develop and how strong he gets.”
For now, he will focus on preparing for his final football season.
“In some ways I think the pressure is off. In other ways it’s still on,” said Croft. “We have to guard against him putting unrealistic expectations on himself ….trying to go be the most dominant player in New England next season. That’s not reality. We want him to continue to develop leadership skills and get better.
“Obviously he has that offer from Notre Dame and that’s great. But I think we have to put (Notre Dame ) on the shelf and go back to our team goals, which is to get better each week…to be a playoff team and to compete for a championship,” added Croft. “We want him to be a part of that and enjoy it like every other student athlete.”
Onye still has a lot of work to do before he heads to South Bend.
“He is not a finished product yet,” said Croft. “That’s our job as coaches to continue to move him further down the road. We want to deliver a better product to Notre Dame next year than we would deliver this year.”