FOOTBALL

Defensive end Khalid Kareem dishes perspective going into his final Notre Dame home game

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Khalid Kareem could hardly stay on the field at the beginning of his Notre Dame career.

Fellow defensive end and eventual Georgia transfer Jay Hayes even called Kareem “soggy” during his freshman days. Kareem’s body type, relative to a typical Irish big end, inspired the nickname.

The Farmington Hills (Mich.) Harrison High product arrived in 2016 as a 6-foot-3, 245-pound early enrollee with plenty of room to grow physically.

“When I got here, no joke, I probably couldn’t have played more than three plays,” Kareem said. “My first spring, I came in as a midyear, and Daelin (Hayes) had to hold me up a little bit. I was so out of breath.

“But now I’m good. I can go. I’m not really getting tired as much as I was early.”

Notre Dame’s seismic shift in culture and philosophy helped Kareem achieve such an ascent. This sort of perspective had been percolating inside Kareem in the weeks leading up to his final game at Notre Dame Stadium.

With that contest between No. 16 Notre Dame (8-2) and Boston College (5-5) coming Saturday (2:30 p.m. EST on NBC), Kareem also pondered about how it will feel to be recognized on Senior Day after an eventful four years.

“I might get a little emotional, I’m not going to lie,” said Kareem, who will be joined by his parents and younger sister during the pregame ceremony for the seniors. “I might tear up a little bit and will try not to cry.”

Kareem credits Matt Balis being named as director of football performance and Mike Elston moving to coach the defensive line from linebackers — both of which occurred following the 4-8 season of 2016 — as contributing factors for him emerging as a senior team captain.

Balis played a role in Kareem’s stark physical evolution. Kareem managed to decrease his body fat by nine percent, down to 14, despite adding 20 pounds and an inch (now 6-4, 265 pounds). He no longer shows signs of fatigue or resists treatment on nagging injuries. A 2018 season marred by a left ankle sprain and a high right ankle sprain helped Kareem embrace the nuances of recovery.

Elston inherited a defensive line unit that ranked last in 2016 among Power Five teams in sacks with three. That group’s resurgence started with Kareem’s recruiting class. Kareem and his fellow 2016 signees — Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Jamir Jones and Daelin Hayes — have accounted for 13.5 of the Irish defensive line’s 17.5 sacks this season.

Leading the team in sacks and tackles for a loss is Kareem with 4.5 and nine, respectively, to go along with his 34 overall tackles, eight quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.

“We spoke among ourselves like, ‘We are going to be the class that changes this,’” Kareem said. “It definitely showed. We have a lot of guys from our class that definitely changed the culture around here. I feel like we did what we set out to do.

“(Elston) stays on us. He holds us accountable every day. But also, he forces our D-line to be accountable for ourselves. The leadership that we have is fantastic. I really haven’t been a part of a greater group of four.

“We all hold ourselves to such a high standard that coach Elston generally doesn’t have to say much. Obviously, he talks to us about what he wants us to do, but we kind of just go from there. He kind of lets us drive the ship a little bit.”

That had not been the case in Kareem’s first year. Playing just four games as a freshman in a lost season felt disheartening to him. Kareem eventually appeared in all 13 games as a sophomore and overtook Jay Hayes as the starter in the spring of 2018.

But not before learning the hard way.

“Certainly there were some residual benefits,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of his current seniors that were on the 2016 squad. “They didn’t seem to be benefits at the time, but they learned quite a bit from that season in terms of the preparation, the locker room and all the things that are necessary to continue to build on your culture.

“Some of those guys are leaders today that have been able to make sure that no one takes our process for granted, and that you continue to work on it every day. So that experience definitely benefited those guys in their senior year.”

Opting to forgo the 2019 NFL Draft and finish his college eligibility proved to be another benefit for Kareem. His first extended time in a featured role without injury came this season. Now Kareem projects as a day two selection (rounds 2-3) in the draft. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler pegged him as the No. 67 overall prospect in his draft rankings earlier this month.

When draft day comes, Kareem will be long removed from Senior Day. But the impact he and his classmates made is likely to linger with the Irish program in the years to come.

“Our goal of winning a national championship is not going to happen this season,” Kareem said. “But I feel like we have definitely set the foundation and the standard. Everyone knows what to expect. The young guys know what to expect, so they can carry the standard and tradition on after we leave.

“Coming here definitely humbled me. It helped me realize that I have a long way to go. Coming out of high school pretty highly recruited, you think you are the man. But then you get here, and you are with the best of the best. More All-Americans.

“So you have to take your game up a notch. It challenged me to be the best person. Sink or swim, and I think I swam pretty well.”

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Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem (53) greets fans following the Notre Dame-New Mexico NCAA Football game Saturday, September 14, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.
Notre Dame senior defensive end Khalid Kareem, left, admits he was pushed around often by Mike McGlinchey, right, and others during his first semester on campus.

WHO: Boston College (5-5) vs. CFP No. 16 Notre Dame (8-2)

WHEN: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 19