Khalid Kareem sidelined from NFL Combine by injury he refused to let shorten his ND career

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — Khalid Kareem didn’t know the damage he sustained.

It wasn’t until after Notre Dame’s 45-24 win at Stanford, in which the Irish defensive end recorded five tackles and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, that Kareem learned he had played the previous three games with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. But that wasn’t going to stop him from playing in the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28.

“I kind of wanted to finish what I started with my guys,” Kareem said Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “As a team captain, I have to be there for them. I couldn’t really look at myself in the mirror knowing I had something left in the tank and didn’t play.”

Kareem notched one tackle and two quarterback hurries in the 33-9 victory over Iowa State in Orlando, Fla. Even near the end of the game, he didn’t want to stay on the sideline. He consulted with fellow defensive end Daelin Hayes, who had labrum surgery himself after four games into the 2019 season.

“I went to Daelin,” Kareem recalled, “and I was like, ‘Bro, do you think it’s worth it going back in?’ He’s like, ‘Bro, sit down.’ That almost brought tears to my eyes, because that was kind of the end. I really didn’t want to go out being injured, but I had a blast playing at Notre Dame.”

Dr. James Andrews operated on Kareem’s torn labrum on Jan. 21. That wiped out Kareem’s ability to play in the Jan. 18 Senior Bowl and will prevent him from participating in workouts at this week’s NFL Combine.

Kareem said he’ll be ready to do physical testing at Notre Dame’s Pro Day, scheduled for April 1. Kareem won’t do contact drills then and likely won’t be ready for rookie mini camp in early May, but he expects to be fully healthy by preseason training camp in August.

Both Kareem and former teammate Julian Okwara will be sidelined when defensive ends complete workouts Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium. They’re rooming together in Indianapolis and trying to keep each other in high spirits.

“It’s a little tough. A little frustrating,” Kareem said. “But I just have to trust my process. I can’t really look at anyone else’s process. I have to keep focusing on my treatment, on my recovery, and I’ll be good at the end of the day.”

Kareem can look at former Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery for reason to believe his draft stock won’t tank because of a labrum surgery. Tillery opted to complete the NFL Combine last year before having his labrum operated on in March. That didn’t prevent Tillery from being selected last April with pick No. 28 in the first round by the Los Angeles Chargers.

Okwara, who broke his left fibula against Duke on Nov. 9, will complete the bench press testing Friday at the combine.

“I’m definitely excited to show what I can do on the bench press,” Okwara said. “My strength is something that’s questioned by a lot of people. But I know I can hold my ground. I’m definitely going to surprise with the number I’m going to put up.”

The 6-foot-4, 252-pound defensive end is itching to show the rest of his athleticism at Notre Dame’s Pro Day. Last spring, Okwara said, he was clocked with a 40-yard dash of 4.53 seconds, and he believes he can do even better now. Okwara recently started running again while training at EXOS in Phoenix before working his way back to timed sprints.

“I’ve been telling guys at EXOS they’re lucky I’m not running right now, because I would be beating all their times — even the running backs,” Okwara said.

Okwara and Kareem won’t get a chance to make many headlines this week without performing at the combine, but it’s still a big moment for the Irish. Both Kareem and Okwara were assigned to one of the eight podiums during their time slot for interviews Thursday morning.

They hope to be the first pair of Notre Dame defensive linemen to be selected in the same draft since 2014, when Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix were picked in the first three rounds.

“Our class was probably one of the best defensive line classes in a while at Notre Dame,” Okwara said. “We kind of changed that narrative. Notre Dame was never really looked at as a great defensive line school. A lot of guys are starting to recognize that.

“We have a great coach, (defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston, who’s taught us a lot. Guys want to play for him and play for each other. Our locker room is very close. We just love each other. That’s why we had success the past few years.”

Kareem did record a bit of a victory Wednesday when he measured in with the biggest hands among all the defensive linemen at the NFL Combine: 10 and 7/8 inches. The 6-4, 268-pound Kareem knew his hands were abnormally large. He has to wear 4XL gloves.

Kareem credited his big hands for helping him record eight pass breakups in his Notre Dame career. He also recorded four forced fumbles, including one against Navy which he described as “I just reached out and tapped it.”

Reaching out did result in Kareem’s torn labrum. On a third-and-7 late in the third quarter of Notre Dame’s 38-7 win at Duke, Kareem tried to bend around the left tackle and reach for quarterback Quentin Harris. As he stretched out his left arm, the offensive lineman knocked Kareem to the ground. Kareem landed on his shoulder, but he assumed he only aggravated the AC joint.

Kareem had already proven his toughness throughout his Notre Dame career. He frequently went down in games with minor ankle injuries, but almost always returned in those games. He played in all 39 games for the Irish the last three seasons and compiled 109 tackles, 26 tackles for a loss, 25 quarterback hurries and 14 sacks.

Kareem hopes his desire to be an every-down defensive end and a commitment to stop the run helps him stand out against other pass rushers in this year’s draft.

“I’m used to being physical at the point of contact,” Kareem said. “A lot of guys don’t like to do it, but that’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s something my coaches actually challenged me, saying ‘You’re pretty good, but can you be great?’ That’s something I tried to do this season.”

Notre Dame’s schedule allowed Kareem to test himself against some of the best offensive tackles in the country. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler ranked four Irish opponents in 2019 among the top seven offensive tackle prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft: Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson, Louisville’s Mekhi Becton and USC’s Austin Jackson.

Kareem, who also went against 2018 first-round draft pick Mike McGlinchey in practices early in his Notre Dame career, gave Becton the nod as his toughest matchup last season.

That all should add up to an impressive résumé for Kareem when the NFL holds this year’s draft in Las Vegas on April 23-25. Brugler ranks Kareem as the No. 10 defensive end prospect in the class.

Kareem is one step closer to making his dream come true. He just needs to convince one team to make it happen — even if it’s not the hometown Detroit Lions, as he imagined as a child.

“That I’m willing to do anything to help this team win,” Kareem said of his pitch to NFL coaches. “I’ve always wanted to win the Super Bowl. I wrote a book when I was in third grade how I wanted to be Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl LX (60). That’s still in my sights. I just want to do anything to help this team win.”

Don't miss any of our Notre Dame football coverage. Sign up for our ND football newsletter for twice-weekly updates on the Irish sent straight to your email inbox.

Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem (53) won’t work out at this week’s NFL Scouting Combine because of a shoulder injury he suffered in November.