Kareem of the crop? Sophomore DE leads Notre Dame's under-the-radar prospects

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — His freshman season was so unassuming that Khalid Kareem didn’t record a single statistic in his four non-descript cameos for the Notre Dame football team in 2016.

And his first name (pronounced CALL-lid) still is mispronounced (as kah-LID) more often than not.

“You can just call me, ‘Lid,’ the 6-foot-4, 266-pound sophomore defensive end offered.

You can also call him one of eight under-the-radar training camp standouts who could impact Notre Dame’s 2017 season eventually, if not sooner.

The Irish open the 2017 season in renovated, reconfigured Notre Dame Stadium, Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT) against Temple.

Kareem and fellow sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara are the only two in the group who have seen game action. Okwara, with a modest four tackles in 11 games in 2016, is the only one who has cracked the stat column.

Kareem is eventually on a trajectory to be a starter at strongside defense end, where senior Jay Hayes currently tops the Irish depth chart. In the meantime, it’s new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s and defensive line coach Mike Elston’s desire to develop and use depth at the defensive line positions this season.

And Kareem has shown in camp he’s ready for the bright lights.

“Maybe he doesn’t have that ‘first step quickness’ or twitch that somebody would write about,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said, “but he is so physically strong.

“He is deceptive in his ability to cross-face, spin out, and some other things. He’s been a player that’s been emerging for us, really like what he’s doing.”

The former Farmington Hills (Mich.) Harrison High standout had a combined 34 sacks over his final two high school seasons. Thirty-six of his 56 tackles as a senior went for losses.

He initially committed to Michigan State, for all of a couple of days, then to Alabama for several months before eventually enrolling early at ND last January.

The expectation was that perhaps the extra spring practice and early jump on college would position him for a meaningful reserve role last season. Looking back, it probably would have been best to take a redshirt year.

Kareem combines Ivy League smarts (had scholarship offers from Harvard and Yale) and a dedication to watching lots of film, a practice he got from coaching father Ken Kareem from age 6.

But in 2016 his body and stamina weren’t ready for college football, something new strength coach Matt Balis and his staff helped rectify this offseason.

“I definitely learned something from playing in those four games,” Kareem said. “The experience always helps, so it’ll lead into this season and help me get ready for that.

“Last year, I took a back seat to (former starter) Isaac Rochell. But I got to watch him and what made him great. So I’m trying to implement that in my game.”

Here’s a look at the other seven under-the-radar camp standouts and what they’re doing to put themselves in positon to make an impact in 2017.

Tony Jones Jr., running back, sophomore: It’s not just the power, the 5-11, 225-pound IMG Academy product showed in camp, it’s the versatility and speed.

Among ND’s three players in its running back rotation, Jones, from St. Petersburg, Fla., is the most proficient weapon in the passing game, and has a build and burst similar to former Irish running back Jonas Gray.

The Irish showed formations in August practices that included starting running back Josh Adams and Jones together. It will be interesting to see if that was more of a ploy to get opposing defensive coordinators thinking or whether it might become a staple in the Chip Long-tweaked Irish offense.

Michael Young, wide receiver, freshman: The math just didn’t add up to anything but a redshirt season for only the second Louisiana prospect to dot an opening-day Irish roster since the 1990s.

Notre Dame had 12 receivers competing for seven rotation spots (sophomore Deon McIntosh has since moved to running back and sophomore Kevin Stepherson won’t play in the opener due to suspension), and Young came in undersized (5-10, 190) and apparently quite underestimated.

The Destrehan (La.) High product didn’t attend many exposure camps while in high school, but he did come to the Irish Invasion camp at ND in the summer of 2016 and made a strong impression. The No. 71 wide receiver nationally per Rivals.com in the 2017 class made an even stronger one this August.

He’ll be in the wide receiver rotation, with the ability to play inside and out, and very well could end up as a key piece in the return game on special teams at some point.

Cole Kmet, tight end, freshman: Another player who overcame a numbers game at his position group, Kmet is expected to be a key contributor on the Notre Dame baseball team at some point.

Redshirting in football seemed to make sense for the son of former Purdue defensive line standout Frank Kmet, with four other strong tight ends already in front of him. But Kmet was just too good in camp to sit in 2017.

Unlike Young, the 6-foot-6, 256-pound Lake Barrington, Ill., product was projected to be a standout (nation’s No. 3 tight end prospect nationally), just not this soon. In August practices, he was especially effective in the red zone.

Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle, freshman: A former high school teammate of Tony Jones Jr., at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., this transplanted Western Pennsylvanian made the most of a semester head start at ND.

The 6-5, 290-pounder could be a starting guard for the Irish next season, but for now, he’s the No. 2 right tackle, behind redshirt freshman Tommy Kraemer. And Kelly said last week, there are no plans to redshirt Hainsey this season.

A snapshot on why? Back in mid-June, on the very day the later-arriving freshmen had their first day of summer school, a whiteboard in the ND football weight room listed each Irish player in order of who was meeting program expectations, from best to worst. Hainsey topped the list that day.

Julian Okwara and Adetokunbo Ogundeji, defensive ends, sophomores: Okwara, the younger brother of Irish 2014 and 2015 sack leader Romeo Okwara, isn’t a surprise here. Ogundeji, beefed up to 256 pounds on his 6-4 frame is.

Classmate Daelin Hayes is the starter at the weakside (drop) end position, but the plan to boost the nation’s 13th-worst pass rush last season and the most tepid at ND since 1991 is to bring edge quickness in waves.

That means the 6-5, 240-pound Okwara, Ogundeji and rejuvenated senior Andrew Trumbetti will all be part of the plan that starts with the 6-5, 258-pound Hayes.

Ogundeji, was a three-star prospect at Walled Lake Central High in Michigan and only played four games his senior year because of injury. Unrated among the nation’s top 45 weakside ends in the 2016 class, Ogundeji garnered only three Power 5 offers (Cal, Rutgers, Pitt) beyond the one extended by the Irish.

Jordan Genmark Heath, safety, freshman: A big wild card at a position of need, Genmark Heath got a late jump at meaningful reps in camp because of a stubborn hamstring pull early. Once he was up to speed, the 6-1, 220-pound Sweden native pushed himself off the redshirt bubble and into the playing conversation.

Former Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer, whose son Morrison played in the same defensive backfield in high school at San Diego Cathedral Catholic High, has been vocal on social media about Genmark Heath’s college readiness.

Morrison, incidentally, will play lacrosse for the Irish. Genmark Heath’s football role is still congealing, but he’s come a long way from teaching himself the game via Youtube videos before moving to the U.S. at the start of his high school years.

Sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem (right) and freshman offensive tackle Robert Hainsey (right) are two of the eight under-the-radar training camp standouts for Notre Dame who could play key roles for the Irish this season. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)