Notre Dame DE Khalid Kareem is all business on his return to Michigan

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — The last time Khalid Kareem strolled into Michigan Stadium, the then-high school defensive end standout from Detroit was sizing it up as a potential future home.

Now a senior defensive end standout at Notre Dame with a burgeoning NFL future, Kareem had been there before for a handful of games. As a recruit. As a kid with his dad, Ken, a longtime high school defensive line coach-turned-realtor.

But as Wolverine coach Jim Harbaugh gave him a tour four years ago on a visit scheduled around a practice shortly after Kareem had decommitted from Alabama, what stuck out was that he had never been there when it was this empty. Or this silent.

If everything goes the way Kareem is trying to will it to Saturday night (7:30 EDT; ABC-TV), Michigan Stadium will be silent again. At least at the end, and relatively speaking.

“The most exciting thing about playing away games — especially like this — is just to leave a crowd silent,” Kareem said of the 44th meeting between the two schools and the first since World War II to be staged beyond September, a span of 32 games.

“Just to see our fans there and let their fans leave, because we’re winning. That’s the greatest feeling about going on the road.”

It’s nothing personal, insists Kareem. It’s business. And No. 8 Notre Dame (5-1) is still in the business of trying to play its way into the College Football Playoff discussion, while 19th-ranked Michigan (5-2) is trying to shed its reputation under Harbaugh of wilting in big games.

The Wolverines under Harbaugh are 1-10 against Top 10 teams and 0-8 as an underdog, something Michigan became around midweek after starting Sunday as a four-point Vegas favorite.

“It really is just another game for Khalid,” said Ken Kareem, who hopes to take it in, in person as he continues to recover from Oct. 1 hip surgery. “Khalid grew up a coach’s kid. We would play teams that were rivals, but for us we had to treat the games as another game. Because if you get too high, you’re not going to do the things you’re used to doing.

“You’re going to try too hard and overplay or be too amped up or make some mistakes. So stick to the game plan. Do the things you know you can do. Trust your athleticism. Trust your coaches and try to win the game. Do what got you here.”

Part of what got Kareem here was another Michigan man, Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston. He played outside linebacker for the Wolverines roughly a decade after QB Harbaugh finished third in the 1986 Heisman Trophy voting behind runaway winner, Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde, and Temple running back Paul Palmer.

“Haven’t seen film, but I’ve seen pictures,” Kareem said of Elston the player.

Does he look like he can play?

A laugh, that almost doubles over the 6-foot-4, 265-pounder from Farmington Hills Harrison High, ensues. “Looks like he can play? Uh yeah,” he says, as he collects himself.

“Don’t know what he plays, but he looks like he could.”

There’s no mistaking Elston’s ability to transform. In 2016, before Elston moved back to coaching defensive line from the linebacker corps, the Irish defensive line accounted for three sacks as a position group, worst among the 65 Power 5 schools.

Halfway through this season Kareem has 3.5 himself. Bookend senior Julian Okwara has four. As a team the Irish ranked 21st nationally in sacks. If that holds up to season’s end, it would be the highest standing of the Kelly Era, one spot ahead of the vaunted 2012 defense.

Kareem also has a team-high seven QB hurries to go along with 20 tackles, five of which are for losses. As a team, ND is sixth nationally in tackles for loss after never previously cracking the top 50 in the Kelly Era.

“I don’t feel like we’re where we want to be,” Kareem said of a position group bolstered by fellow Michiganders Ade Ogundeji, Ovie Oghoufo and Daelin Hayes, until the latter was sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury after game 4.

“We want to be the best D-line in the country. We still have some things to clean up. There’s always room to grow, so I think we’re never content with where we are. We’re always striving to get better. And coach Elston never lets us be comfortable with where we are.”

Notre Dame’s clearest path to its fourth win in the past five meetings in the Michigan series is making Wolverine quarterback Shea Patterson uncomfortable and controlling the nation’s No. 80 rushing attack.

In other words, what was supposed to be the strongest position group for the Irish coming into the season needs to be that and show that Saturday night in Michigan Stadium.

Patterson has regressed as a passer, falling to 71st nationally this season in passing efficiency (131.5). That’s almost 50 spots below Notre Dame counterpart Ian Book (23rd). Last season Patterson finished five spots behind book, at 22nd.

But Patterson showed some pluck and prowess last Saturday night at Penn State after the Wolverines fell behind 21-0 in an eventual 28-21 Nittany Lion victory.

Michigan outrushed Penn State in that game, marking just the third time in the 40 times during the Harbaugh Era when the Wolverines won the rushing game but lost on the scoreboard.

The magic number for the Michigan rushing attack is 125 yards. The Wolverines under Harbaugh are 39-2 when they hit or surpass that total and are 25-0 when they have an individual get to 100 yards.

Ken and Khalid were able to take in part of the Michigan-Penn State game when they found a TV at the entertainment center where Khalid’s younger sister was celebrating her birthday.

All in all, it was a much more successful venture than the family’s impromptu trip to Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, last weekend. As the Kareems exited the Ohio Turnpike, they were told at the toll booth that the park was at capacity and that they wouldn’t be allowed to proceed down the road.

“Had to drive back home, two hours,” Kareem said. “We created memories with the family.”

Why Kareem ended up creating football memories at Notre Dame rather than Michigan was an unexpected ending to a topsy-turvy recruiting process.

Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke never offered a scholarship to Kareem. But in January of 2015, a little over a year before signing day, Harbaugh extended the first offer in the 2016 class to Kareem shortly after he succeeded Hoke.

So naturally Kareem committed to … Michigan State in February and then Alabama in June, fooling the recruiting analysts both times. Once he reopened his recruitment a third time, Harbaugh was determined to reel in Kareem.

Father and son met with Harbaugh, then-D-line coach Greg Mattison and then-defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. They watched a practice together. Toured the stadium. Got back in the car and didn’t say a whole lot to each other on the way home.

The sounds of silence.

“During our meeting with the coaches, we talked football and the scheme that they were going to be playing,” Ken said. “It was a typical meeting like some of the other schools we went to. For it to be a hometown team, we didn’t think they recruited him like some of the other schools did, like Alabama did.

“It wasn’t anything special. Same as other meetings. Selling the program, selling the tradition, selling the strength and reputation of their degree.”

Shortly thereafter, in October of 2015, Kareem committed to Notre Dame and enrolled early the following January.

“He was a great guy, always straightforward,” Khalid said of Harbaugh. “He expressed they wanted me, that a spot was open for me, but I just felt like Notre Dame was home for me. I have nothing bad to say about coach Harbaugh.

“I mean I just wanted to do something different, to be my own person.”

Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem (53) breaks through the Michigan offensive line during the ND’s 24-17 victory, Sept. 1, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem (53) tackles USC QB Kedon Slovis (9) during the ND’s 30-27 win Oct. 12 at Notre Dame Stadium.