Upon his arrival in December, Arizona State coach Todd Graham promptly suspended Onyeali after word of his combative nature and emotional instability under the previous regime trickled into his ear.
A "plan of improvement" was put in place that Onyeali, a 5-foot-11, 230 pound junior, had to satisfy in order to again wear a Sun Devil jersey. It didn't always seem like things were headed in that direction, especially earlier in the year, but there Onyeali was in his familiar No. 5 jersey on Friday night at the Kajikawa Practice Facility.
"It's been a journey but it's definitely been a journey that I've learned a lot from," a perpetually smiling Onyeali said Friday. "I think I needed to go through it. I would definitely say it's helped humble me."
Onyeali was a Rivals.com Freshman All-American following a 2010 season that saw him finish with 6.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, both best among newcomers in the then Pac-10 conference.
It appeared Onyeali was poised for another strong season in 2011, but suffered a knee injury in the first defensive series at Illinois in Sept., and missed four games, during which time he gained significant weight and never returned to form.
A verbal spat with previous head coach Dennis Erickson prior to the team's bowl game left him suspended from the trip and that ban was expanded indefinitely. But Onyeali, who was baptized during the offseason, accomplished everything asked of him and feels better off for it.
"Just learning what it takes to be a team player," Onyeali said, when asked about how he's changed. "A lot of selfishness before but now we're going to play as a team which is definitely good.
"Not only the place but I felt a new energy. Even though I was suspended, I felt like they were doing something that was going to be special and I wanted to be a part of it."
Onyeali will play the Devil backer position, which is a hybrid linebacker-defensive end type role that is primarily a stand up passer rusher. In ASU's four man fronts, the position lines up on the outside but in the 3-3-5 stack defense, which was implemented Friday, he acts as the middle linebacker.
From either spot, Onyeali will likely still be identified as a real threat by opposing quarterbacks, especially since he has lost all the excess weight from last year and looks physically fit.
"It's definitely going to be different, I'm going to have to watch a lot of film, but I think it's going to be good, I'm excited," Onyeali said.
Newcomers impress Graham
After spending the spring becoming keenly aware of his team's precarious depth issues at numerous positions across the defense, Graham was encouraged by what he saw from newcomers in their first action Friday.
"I counted six or seven guys on defense that didn't go through spring that I was thoroughly impressed with today for their first outing. So obviously our staff did a good job with recruiting. We've got a long way to go though."
Rattling off the names of junior college transfers and freshmen throughout his post-practice session with reporters, Graham said he also liked what he saw from several evening participants on offense, which included more than a dozen returners as coaches wanted to even out the numbers practicing in each session.
"I really was impressed with (redshirt freshman quarterback) Michael Eubank, thought he did a lot of great things and getting him a whole bunch of reps. (True freshman receiver) Richard Smith stood out. We really feel good about what we did from a recruiting standpoint."
Graham also liked junior college additions Steffon Martin, Chris Young and Mike Pennel, which acknowledging that Young needs to get in shape after taking five summer classes to attain his eligibility and not being at ASU until July 20.
Smith out for camp
Sources close to the Arizona State program and junior tight end Max Smith said Smith injured his back during summer conditioning and is unlikely to participate in any practices this month.
Smith, who saw action at tight end and 3-back during the spring, is rehabbing the injury in an attempt to avoid surgery, which is possible, one source said, depending on how successful the treatment is.