The 2016 Notre Dame football season still lingers in Khalid Kareem’s mind.
Kareem signed with a 10-3 Irish squad as a four-star recruit and all-state player out of Farmington (Mich.) Harrison High. A year later, and he was playing sparingly across four games for a 4-8 team. All his potential and promise were of little impact in year one.
The Irish finishing second-to-last in sacks (13) among Power Five teams haunted the defensive end. It still does.
“We don’t want to go back to that,” Kareem said. “That also helps fueling us to keep going. We know where we were before, and we don’t want to go back. If we feel ourselves slipping a bit, all right, pick it up. If we feel those habits come back, get out of them.”
The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder enters his final collegiate season pleased with how his career has since unfolded. Kareem continues to draw the 2016 wakeup call from his memory as a motivator. He needed a push to reach the acclaim of a future NFL Draft pick. Opposite end Julian Okwara and Kareem both deferred last year’s draft to return for 2019.
The duo figure to play a major role in No. 9 Notre Dame’s Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville. The Cardinals ranked second-to-last in sacks allowed per game (3.58) last season. Left tackle Mekhi Becton, at 6-foot-7, 369 pounds, stands as their biggest obstacle.
“I see key things here and there that I can try to exploit,” said Kareem of Becton, who projects as a future NFL Draft pick. “I don’t want to say too much, but I definitely have a game plan for him that I’m looking forward to on Monday.”
Kareem did not exude that level of confidence a few years ago. He first leaned on teammates and family members to push through that freshman wall. His progress earned him time in all 13 games as a sophomore. That following offseason, Kareem secured the starting role over Jay Hayes. Hayes then transferred to Georgia.
In his first year as a starter in 2018, Kareem tallied 42 tackles, five pass breakups, 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble. His 10.5 tackles for a loss and eight quarterback hurries ranked second on the Irish.
The result of falling to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal left Kareem unsatisfied. Defensive line coach Mike Elston felt his unit left a myriad of sacks on the table. For Okwara, his tendency to not finish plays resulted in 21 quarterback hurries dwarfing his eight sacks.
For Kareem, nagging ankle injuries rendered him below 100 percent for stretches of last season. He suffered a left ankle sprain in the season opener against Michigan and a high right ankle sprain two weeks later against Vanderbilt.
The limited participation curtailed Kareem’s endurance, though he still played in all 13 games.
“Staying healthy is one of my biggest things,” said Kareem on his focus this offseason. “My stamina and my fatigue, being able to just keep playing more plays than I did last year. I felt like sometimes I got tired after just a few plays.
“But also honing in on the pass-rush techniques I have now. I try to have three or four max that I go to hone in on and try to be a pro at those.”
The ankle issues helped Kareem learn the value of receiving medical attention. Even if he’s not plagued by a serious injury, there’s no harm in seeing a trainer for minor treatment.
“For some reason, I felt like if I went to the trainers, I wasn’t going to play,” Kareem said. “But then my body would not be working the right way. So I’m trying to see them often to try to make sure my legs, ankles and everything is feel right so I can be the best I can be on Saturdays.”
Elston needs a healthy Kareem to serve as a versatile piece in his defensive front. The Irish aren’t afraid to slide Kareem inside on certain passing downs. Such a move requires durable ankles that can withstand the action that comes inside.
Losing interior starters Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner left Notre Dame with a lesser-imposing unit inside. With the defensive ends remaining as ND’s strength, matching backups Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji beside Okwara or Kareem in certain situations could make for a solid combination.
The Irish rotate their defensive line with frequency. At least 10 different defensive linemen saw time in all but two games last season. Twelve participated against Wake Forest and Clemson.
“Everybody knows they need to be ready,” Elston said. “We have packages that coach (Clark) Lea and the staff have put together to try and get everybody in as best as we can.
“It’s a good problem to have to have some good depth, but there’s a plan to try and play as many guys as we possibly can.”
A defensive line group Elston calls his best in a while looked the part this preseason. Becoming complacent after a successful season plagued the Irish in 2016. Kareem is not willing to see that happen again.
“It’s a new season and new team,” Kareem said. “Guys that helped us last year are gone. Guys have to step up, do their job. This team is capable of doing something really special.
“Going into this year, we have to keep the blinders on and not focus on stuff outside the team.”