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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Kareem, depth in trenches help anchor Irish defense

Six games in, and the sense of deja vu is undeniable.

With just under five minutes left in the first half, the Notre Dame defensive unit stepped up to its own 1-yard line in the midst of arguably its most important road game. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, had just ripped off a 41-yard run to come within striking distance of taking the lead.

Reminiscent of the 2012 team, notorious for allowing teams to gain yardage only to pin it down in the red zone, the Irish defense had a goal-line stand for the ages, keeping Virginia Tech from scoring three times from the 1-yard line and eventually forcing a field goal. Notre Dame would go on to score another touchdown and never looked back on its way to a 45-23 routing of the Hokies.

One of those key plays at the goal line came down to junior defensive lineman Khalid Kareem. On second down, Kareem made a diving play to wrap up Hokies senior running back Steven Peoples as he barreled towards the end zone, maintaining the Irish lead. For Kareem, this play just came down to trust.

“You’ve got to bull up right there,” he said. “You know, you’ve got to match pad lower, you just can’t be denied in that situation … just go out with the mentality that you cannot be stopped or blocked and you know, you’re bound to make a play.”

Irish junior defensive lineman Khalid Kareem leaps in an attempt to block a field goal during Notre Dame's 45-23 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday at Lane Stadium.
Irish junior defensive lineman Khalid Kareem, left, leaps and sticks his arm up in an attempt to block a field goal during Notre Dame's 45-23 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday at Lane Stadium.

Kareem, a native of Detriot, had a breakout sophomore season last year, playing in all 13 games and recording three sacks. That dominance has only continued, having totaled seven tackles for loss for a total of 46 yards. He’s also contributed 3.5 sacks to the team total of 15, a statistic head coach Brian Kelly and Kareem agreed isn’t even the beginning of what this pass-rush defense is capable of.

“We’re much more interested in quarterback hurries and getting them out of the pocket and getting them out of rhythm, much more than anything else,” Kelly said. “ …The passing game is a three-step passing game. Pass deflections are also part of that, getting your hands up. The escapability of quarterbacks make it much more difficult, obviously, the ability to run. We’re much more interested in disruptions, hurries, pass deflections and getting the quarterback out of the midfield. … [If we] get him out of the pocket, we’re affecting the pass.”

“Clean up the messy mistakes,” Kareem said. “ … Fine tune everything and we could be elite.”

As much as Kareem has been a standout in his own right, he insists it’s a team effort. The defensive line’s greatest strength is its depth, and while senior Jerry Tillery leads the team with seven sacks and juniors Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes have been effective off the edge, the ability to rotate guys in and maintain an effective pass rush has been the difference between this unit and those from years past.

“I feel like everyone’s confident in you know, whoever’s behind them,” he said. “It’s really not a second or third string; it’s just next man in. You know, there’s no drop off between the depth chart so everyone’s confident in each other you know, we’ve got each other’s back.”

Kelly emphasized that same team mentality, saying it comes down to patience and development.

“We’re fortunate that we’ve had some players over the years, but there has to be a level of patience in developing our players from a fit standpoint, and then obviously having the ability to go out and impact the game, and I think we’ve seen that with a number of our players,” Kelly said.

Kelly said it’s rarely plug-and-play, and spoke highly of his assistant coaches efforts in creating a culture that prepares all players to play at their highest level.

That all-hands-on-deck attitude will be crucial this weekend against Pittsburgh, a program that has a history of spoiling top-team’s seasons, including nearly unravelling the 2012 run to the national championship game in Kelly’s third season with the Irish.

Kareem, knowing that Pitt is expected to play its best this weekend, said the team will have to bring its A-game to hold off the Panthers.

“We’re preparing the same way we did the last game,” Kareem said. “You know, one game at a time. We focused on that one and now we lock in on our opponent now. We’ve always had … the same mindset of just dominating them.

“We’re definitely aware of [Pitt’s past upsets]. But we just have to come in with the mentality that no one can stop us. … As long as we do that we’re fine.”

After struggling offensively throughout the first quarter of the season, the defense kept the team afloat, limiting its opponents to an average of 20 points per game and has found success largely thanks to the depth of the defensive line. Now, with the toughest half of the schedule behind it, the Irish offense has joined Kareem and the entire defensive line in hitting its stride in hopes of an undefeated season.