Persevering on a long, winding road has Khalid Kareem rising for Notre Dame

Staff reports
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

Just past 1 a.m., on an offseason night when Khalid Kareem could have been dreaming about his future, he and fellow Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes decided to do something about it.

Hayes was visiting Kareem at the latter’s parents’ house in Southfield, Mich., as he so often still does, when they decided to summon Kareem’s father, Ken, to lead them in some defensive line drills.

“Couldn’t go outside at 1 a.m.,” Ken Kareem, a realtor who coached high school defensive linemen on the side for a couple of decades, said with a laugh. “So we actually moved the living room table.

“Those two have been roommates since day one. They have gone through a lot of the same things as college kids and young men, and some of them frustrating. But they’ve never stopped talking about how to make their future better and never stopped working to make that talk come true.”

What Khalid Kareem’s present looks like, heading into Saturday’s 2:35 p.m. EDT Notre Dame Stadium matchup between the fifth-ranked Irish (6-0) and Pitt (3-3), starts with 20 tackles — most among D-line coach Mike Elston’s deep reservoir of burgeoning talent.

Seven of those 20 tackles during Khalid Kareem’s first season as a starter have been behind the line of scrimmage, including 3.5 sacks.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pound junior has also swatted away two pass attempts, and his forced fumble by Virginia Tech QB Ryan Willis last Saturday night in a 45-23 road win was scooped up by Irish cornerback Julian Love for a 42-yard touchdown.

“This is a special class,” Khalid said of fellow junior ends Hayes, Julian Okwara, Ade Ogundeji and Jamir Jones, who come at opposing offenses in waves. “We’ve been talking about this since we got here.

“And when we’ve finally got our opportunity, we’re making big plays.”

It’s been a winding road to get there, especially for Khalid, though it regularly seemed to run through Ken Kareem’s back yard — or living room, when necessary.

In the short three-week interval, for instance, between the end of the spring semester in May and the start of ND’s summer 4-for-40 commitment in early June, Khalid spent his vacation back home in Michigan not vacationing.

Ken, in turn, took vacation time to make sure he was available to work with his son.

“Being a coach’s kid, football really doesn’t stop,” Khalid said. “When I was growing up, you go from practice and you carry that home every day. and now when I go home, he (Ken) has already got the film up watching it, telling me to sit down.

“We sit there for like two hours, watching multiple games — just what I can do better, what I could have done different. and it’s something I want from him, something I appreciate.”

He also appreciates his ND defensive coaches and strength and conditioning staff, lauding them all. The work with his father is how Khalid tries to push himself outside the time the NCAA allows for him to work with his on-campus mentors.

Maybe part of what feeds the hunger for both Khalid and Ken is that after a standout sophomore high school season at Harrison High in Farmington Hills, Ken sent out dozens of sets of game tapes, following up with e-mails and phone calls.

“And nothing,” Ken said. “No scholarship offers. Sometimes not even a response back.

“So we decided to drive the 5 ½, 6 hours to Ball State. They were at least someone who did answer back, and they made it seem like if we’d just go take a visit in person, they’d offer him a scholarship. They just wanted to see him, they said.

“But when we drove over, they didn’t offer. We were literally asking them about it, and they said they’d let us know. They never did.”

It wasn’t until Khalid was a high school junior that Bowling Green finally became the first school to extend an offer.

“I remember us high-fiving, figuring that’s where he was going to play his college ball,” Ken said. “That was on a Thursday. On Saturday of that week, Northwestern wanted us to visit, so we did. He was offered five minutes after he arrived.

“Then it was like a flood. All the people who wouldn’t call us back, suddenly were calling. Coaches were coming to Harrison to see him in person. The offer list grew to 30 or 40 pretty fast.”

As hard as Khalid worked on football, though, he never lost perspective on the bigger picture. He was a swimmer, a basketball player and a shot putter at Harrison.

And a student.

A good student, good enough that both Harvard and Yale joined his long list of serious football suitors.

Even Wednesday of this week, when he was rolled out for media availability, Khalid was eager to finish that up quickly so that he could study for midterms, write a paper, and work on his art project — a nod to Nickelodeon shows, including “CatDog.”

“It’s easy for anyone to get caught up in the celebrity of playing college football, especially when things start to go your way,” Ken said. “He’s never let that get to him. He’s a humble kid and he usually takes care of his business first.”

Picking a school, though, was a confusing business. Once Michigan State jumped on the offer bandwagon, Khalid visited there on Super Bowl Sunday on his junior year. He got caught up in the excitement of a Michigan-MSU basketball game during the visit, and told Spartans coach Mark Dantonio he wanted to commit.

Dantonio sensed it was a knee-jerk response and advised Khalid to take his time. On the way home, he phoned Dantonio to tell him he was going to take that advice.

“That’s why, to this day, I respect Dantonio a whole lot,” Ken said.

Alabama coach Nick Saban made a run at Khalid shortly thereafter, and Khalid made a verbal commitment during his visit to Tuscaloosa.

But after making a second visit to the Alabama campus and recalculating how difficult it would be for his family, mother Felicia in particular, to get to games, he decommitted and eventually chose the Irish over coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan.

Khalid enrolled early — in January of 2016 — as did Hayes, safeties Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill, and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson. Kareem quickly got hit with culture shock.

“I was a little naïve of the system and how college works,” Kareem said. “I thought, I can come in and earn a starting spot fresh out of high school. I found out quickly that it doesn’t come easy.

“But that was a blessing, because it gave me the mentality that I’ve got to grind, day in and day out, to get where I want to be. I think it’s paying off.”

Khalid showed flashes of that big-play capability last season, with 21 tackles as a reserve behind then-senior Jay Hayes. Five and a half of those tackles were for losses, with three sacks. He had two pass breakups, six QB hurries and a fumble recovery.

He also showed flashes of frustration before overtaking Hayes near the start of spring. Hayes took a grad transfer to Georgia, where he has two tackles on the season heading into Saturday’s clash with LSU.

“He had some rough moments that he’s matured from,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of Kareem. “His development for me has been one where I think his off-field development has been beneficial, because it’s helped him on the field.

“Growing up as a young man off the field here at Notre Dame, in our community, has really helped him as a football player.”

The last time Ken and Khalid had a chance to work together on Khalid’s development, this past summer, Ken noticed a surge in his son’s explosiveness, and a quicker first step.

Being a long-time D-line coach who gets weekly offers to come out of coaching retirement, Ken figured Khalid’s improved pass rush would result in offensive linemen holding him more often.

“So we practiced the same drills as before, but this time we did it while I was (illegally) holding him, like an offensive lineman would,” Ken said. “I wanted him to get past that frustration, get past being uncomfortable and work on his escape techniques. and it’s paying off now.”

The real payoff is that Kareem is already looking for the next level of improvement, whether that comes at 1 in the morning or during the normal run of practice time. and the younger defensive ends, such as freshman Justin Ademilola, are taking notice and following suit.

That’s why Kareem was more than comfortable when Ademilola and Jones had to play high-leverage and high-volume snaps against Virginia Tech, with Hayes out for that game with a stinger injury that he has recovered from, and Okwara ejected for targeting.

“I told the guys at halftime, ‘It’s your time to shine.’ “ Khalid said. “ ’You’ve been waiting a long time to do this.’ Let’s go.’ ”

Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem (53) moves in on Stanford QB K.J. Costello (3) during the ND’s rout of Stanford, Sept. 29 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Who: No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) vs. Pittsburgh (3-3)

When: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

Line: Notre Dame by 21½