Analysis: Ascending Notre Dame defensive line's strength is in its numbers

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Khalid Kareem asked a question.

The answer doesn’t really matter.

“I was itching since day one (to get a sack),” said Kareem, a Notre Dame defensive end, following the 52-17 victory over Miami (Ohio) last weekend. “Every game I’m so close, and before the game me and Julian Okwara were talking about, ‘Who’s going to be the first one to get him?’ ”

Late in the third quarter, Kareem provided an emphatic answer. With Miami situated at the Irish 26-yard line, Kareem entered the game and lined up along the right edge. He noted that the right tackle, redshirt sophomore Matt Skibinski, started in a run set, then shifted his weight back, which hinted at pass protection.

Quarterback Gus Ragland took a shotgun snap, and Kareem took off. He batted Skibinski’s hands away, bended around the edge, barreled towards Ragland and chased him down at the 34-yard line.

It was the first sack of the 6-foot-4, 266-pound sophomore’s college career.

“Khalid is really emerging in so many ways,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Physically in the weight room, his numbers are off the charts in terms of what he's been doing. He's just physically coming into his own.

“He’s very trustworthy in terms of what he's doing day-to-day with (defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston. He's earned his playing time.”

He certainly earned the sack. But, just for a moment, forget the “who.”

For Notre Dame, the key is “how.”

As in, how can a team without a dominant pass rusher produce 11 sacks in its first five games? How can its defensive line limit opponents to 144.2 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry? How can Elston’s group help force 11 turnovers, six of which were recovered fumbles?

How is any of that possible, considering that the Irish returned zero defensive line sacks from 2016?

It’s not Kareem. It’s not fellow sophomore defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Okwara. It’s not senior defensive ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti, or junior nose guard Jerry Tillery, or freshmen interior defensive linemen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

It’s all of them. It’s the merciless pass-rushing masses.

Notre Dame’s defensive strength is in its numbers.

“So many guys are playing and being fresh, running to the ball, playing physical, playing hard,” Kareem said when asked to explain Notre Dame’s defensive success.

“Everybody’s locked in and focused on what they’re doing. Everybody’s doing their job. They’re not trying to do it for anyone else.”

Take Kareem, for example. The play before his sack, the Detroit native wasn’t on the field. And after his celebration, he jogged back to the sideline.

Under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko, Notre Dame is constantly substituting, constantly reloading, constantly crashing fresh waves of defensive linemen into the shore.

This season, with this personnel, high tide lasts 60 minutes.

Need proof? Through five games, nine players have combined for Notre Dame’s 11 sacks. Besides Tillery, who leads the team with three, no other Irish player can claim more than 1.5 sacks.

After finishing with 14 sacks and 1.2 sacks per game last season, Notre Dame already has 11 sacks and is averaging 2.2 sacks per game with much of the same personnel.

Through the course of a game, Notre Dame regularly plays nine defensive linemen: five defensive ends (Daelin Hayes, Trumbetti, Okwara, Jay Hayes and Kareem), two defensive tackles (Jonathan Bonner and Tagovailoa-Amosa) and two nose guards (Tillery and Hinish).

This allows the Irish defense to absorb a high volume of plays without wilting in the fourth quarter, as it did with regularity in 2016. In fact, Notre Dame’s defense has been on the field for 76.8 plays per game thus far, which is the 16th-most out of 128 FBS programs.

North Carolina (1-4), which hosts Notre Dame on Saturday, averages 71.7 offensive plays per game.

Last season, Notre Dame was outscored 94-62 in the fourth quarter and overtime.

This year, the Irish have doubled up their opponents in the fourth quarter, 48-24.

It’s not because of one player, or one scheme, or one ultimately insignificant pregame question.

Notre Dame’s numbers have been the difference … and don’t expect a drop-off anytime soon.

“It’s going to be exciting,” Kareem said with a smirk, when asked about the growing number of young contributing defensive linemen. “The few years coming up are going to be nice.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem (53) sacks Miami (Ohio)’s Gus Ragland (14) during the Miami (Ohio) at Notre Dame NCAA football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA