Khalid Kareem rises and the Notre Dame defensive end group does so along with him

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Isaiah Foskey is absurdly an afterthought in the current Notre Dame football snapshot.

In the not-too-distant past, a player with his kind of promise would have likely been slotted, admittedly unfairly, in the savior category, even though his arrival as a freshman enrollee is still three months off.

The soon-to-be Irish defensive end certainly has the size (6-foot-5, 230-pounds), the offer list (Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Ohio State, Texas, USC, among others) and the pedigree (national powerhouse De La Salle in Concord, Calif.) to prompt some hyperventilation — the good kind — from the ND fan base.

What’s changed is the context around him.

Notre Dame headed into practice No. 2 of the spring on Tuesday with the defensive end position group resoundingly being the strength of the 2019 team, both in quantity and quality.

In 2016, the Irish accounted for 14 sacks as a team. Two years later, the defensive end group alone had 16. And the team amassed 34, matching the 2012 Irish for the most in a season since 2003. The expectation for 2019 is that both numbers (sacks by the ends and overall sacks) will increase.

“There’s not a guy who doesn’t look good and who hasn’t put on functional weight for their position,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly puffed of the defensive line.

By the time Foskey and Howard Cross join the fray in June, there will be 11 able bodies competing for playing time at the two edge positions, with few considered long-term projects.

“They’re all going to want to compete,” Kelly said. “They’re all going to want to play. It’s going to be hard to get all those guys on the field. It’s a great situation to have.”

Actually, it’s what playoff teams look like at the position group. Elite pass rushers at the top of the depth chart. Backups who can rotate in without a significant drop-off in production. Insurance in case of injuries. Prospects in the lower classes who don’t have to be rushed.

“You’d even look at (the question): Can you redshirt somebody there?” Kelly said.

That might not be limited to freshmen.

Senior-to-be Jamir Jones (12 tackles, one tackle for loss, two QB hurries, one fumble recovery in 2018) might make sense to limit to four games or fewer in the 2019 season, then bring him back for 2020 when the three players counted on to play the most snaps in the coming season all will have exhausted their eligibility.

The chain of events that were most imperative to the ideal defensive end dynamic were the decisions by starters Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem to put off the NFL for a year and return for their senior seasons, and the expectation by Kelly and others on the staff that both will be significantly improved.

“It was semi-difficult, I guess,” Kareem said of his own process regarding the NFL. “I talked to my coaches and then I had a pretty long, deep conversation with my parents.

“I just felt like I had more to give to this university, to this team. I wanted to finish and get my degree for one and finish what we started last year. That (playoff) loss sort of left a sour taste in our mouths. Just want to come back and win it all.”

Okwara tied graduated defensive tackle Jerry Tillery for the team lead in sacks in 2018 with eight and is on a career trajectory in 2019 to become the first Irish player to hit double digits in that category since Stephon Tuitt in 2012 (12) and just the fourth player to do so in the past two decades.

Kareem had 4.5 sacks himself, and his eight QB hurries were second on the team to Okwara’s school-record 21. He also had five pass breakups, most by a non-DB among Irish players. And his 42 tackles were most in 2018 for an Irish defensive lineman.

“Putting on a little more muscle. Just getting stronger overall to take on the run blocks more,” the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Kareem said of his offseason goals, “and just become a better leader overall.”

He’s among those players, in fact, Kelly is considering pushing for captaincy — something the ND coach figures won’t be finalized until spring practice reaches its conclusion, the April 13 Blue-Gold Game or just beyond.

Not that leading was ever a stretch for Kareem.

It kind of comes naturally, with Kareem’s father Ken having been a longtime defensive line coach in the Detroit area. Though he’s officially retired from high school coaching, the elder Kareem continues to tutor Khalid whenever the two are in the same space.

In fact, not too long ago Khalid went home with fellow senior end Daelin Hayes, and the two decided they had to do some drills at 1 a.m., and summoned Ken. To keep the peace in the neighborhood, they stayed inside and moved the living room table to create a working area.

“Those two have been roommates since day one,” Ken Kareem said at the time. “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.”

Khalid extends his leadership to the interior defensive line group, which doesn’t have either the sheer numbers or the proven commodities that the edge players do.

“You don’t let anything slide or go unnoticed,” Kareem said. “If a guy messes up, you don’t have to yell at them during the play. Just pull him over to the side and let him know what he has to do to face it.

“Sometimes I talk to (No. 1 nose guard) Kurt (Hinish) or text him pics or videos of what he did wrong and what he could do it improve. So I’m already just trying to help them in their development as well as showing them how to do it the right way on the field.”

What he showed them in 2018 was how to play through pain. Kareem suffered a left ankle sprain in the 2018 season opener with Michigan on Sept. 2, then suffered a more severe high sprain to the right ankle two weeks later against Vanderbilt.

“I didn’t have time to recover. I had to play,” he said. “So I just played through those. I was a little bit banged up, but that’s part of football.

“I feel good now. I feel like I’m back. … And I feel like we can be one of the best D-lines in the country.”

Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem’s return for his senior season helped bolster an already deep Irish edge defender corps.
Notre Dame’s Jamir Jones (44) celebrates during Notre Dame’s win over USC Nov. 24 at the LA Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif.

WEAKSIDE DEFENSE END

Julian Okwara 6-5 240 Sr.

Daelin Hayes 6-4 268 Sr.

Justin Ademilola 6-2 250 So.

Ovie Oghoufo 6-3 230 So.

NaNa Osafo-Mensah 6-3 235 Fr.

Isaiah Foskey 6-5 230 Fr.

STRONGSIDE DEFENSIVE END

Khalid Kareem 6-4 262 Sr.

Adetokunbo Ogundeji 6-4 250 Sr.

Jamir Jones 6-3 257 Sr.

Kofi Wardlow 6-2 245 Jr.

Howard Cross III 6-1 265 Fr.