Temper projections for Notre Dame's freshman d-ends

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Productive defensive ends has been at or near the top of Notre Dame’s list of needs in the last few recruiting cycles.

The results have rarely matched those demands. But the Irish took a big step in the right direction with the 2016 class that signed earlier this month.

The class included three true defensive ends — Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Adetokunbo Ogundeji — and a pair of linebackers who could transition to the position — Daelin Hayes and Jamir Jones.

In depth, quality and potential, it’s Notre Dame’s best group of edge rushers since the 2011 class that included Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams. The luster of that unit faded as Lynch transferred out of Notre Dame following his freshman season and Williams never met the expectations that came with his recruitment.

The hope that the newest group of defensive ends could help change Notre Dame’s pass rush is reasonable. With development, the group could make a lasting impact.

And while the opportunity for multiple players to see the field as freshmen exists, the expectations for high sack numbers should be tempered. On National Signing Day, Notre Dame’s coaching staff shared that sentiment.

“It's going to take a little bit of time,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “But we're pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have.”

It’s hard for freshmen to make an impact at defensive end. Very hard, according to defensive line coach Keith Gilmore. The recent sack totals reflect that. During Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, only Lynch (5.5 sacks) recorded more than two sacks in his freshman season.

The list of freshmen defensive ends who made any sacks isn’t much longer. Tuitt, Sheldon Day and Kolin Hill each recorded two in their freshmen seasons. Grant Blankenship and Andrew Trumbetti both tallied one sack in 2014. That’s it.

“I’ve had very few of them in the course of my career,” Gilmore said of freshmen defensive ends who are ready to play. “Sometimes you play them out of necessity, but for the most part, just like with offensive linemen, it’s hard to find guys that are physically mature and ready to play at a high level coming right out of high school.

“The fact that Khalid is here early may give him a little bit more of an opportunity so he’ll get a chance to see what it’s like to learn our system and get his body in shape to play Division I football. It’s really tough to find those guys that can come in and really be productive on the defensive line.”

Both Kareem and Hayes would appear to be Notre Dame’s best bet to impact the pass rush immediately. The two enrolled at Notre Dame earlier this year and should have a head start on the rest.

Kareem, who tallied 16 sacks in his senior season at Farmington Hills (Mich.) Harrison, could be physically ready at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds.

But even some of the best defensive end recruits in the country struggle to corral the quarterback in their first year. Last year, only four true freshmen defensive ends recorded more than two sacks at the FBS level: LSU’s Arden Key (5), North Carolina State’s Darian Roseboro (4), Arizona State’s JoJo Wicker (4), and Florida’s Cece Jefferson (3.5). Rivals rated six defensive ends as five-star recruits in the 2015 class.

The position comes with a required patience. Especially for Hayes, who comes to Notre Dame with five-star expectations, but also with a high school resume marred by injuries. His senior season was cut short with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He’s still recovering from surgery in November.

“He’ll do some things in spring practice,” Gilmore said. “He won’t be full go as far as hitting is concerned. He’ll be able to run around and do some physical things but not hitting. Hopefully he’ll be ready to go in the summer when it’s time to go.”

Though most of his career was spent playing linebacker, Hayes’ future appears on the defensive line. When linebackers coach Mike Elston was asked if he was going to fight to keep Hayes at linebacker, he said he would but sounded defeated when adding that Hayes was already “a Whopper away” from being a defensive end at 6-3, 256. 

Gilmore would be happy to have him.

“I think he can help us at defensive end,” Gilmore said. “That’s kind of what he was, more of an outside linebacker kid. He can be an ideal rush player. He’s a rare talent, a special breed of kid.

“He’s a freshman that probably could do it. He’s got enough athleticism. He’s over 250 pounds right now, a special athlete. He’s a kid that if there’s a freshman that can come in and help us on the defensive line, he’s one of those guys that really could do that.”

It will take a special player to do it. Fortunately for the Irish, they think they found some.

tjames@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @TJamesNDI

By enrolling at Notre Dame in January defensive end Khalid Kareem could give himself a better chance to make an impact as a freshman. (Photo courtesy of Rivals)