Khalid Kareem
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NFL Draft Mad Libs: Former Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem

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Editor’s Note: Some may take this as a means of doing less work, combining both a draft preview with a draft recap. The truth is, it should be seen as a peek behind the curtain. A draft recap is written long ahead of time, leaning heavily on repurposing the draft preview, so as to publish quickly upon the announcement of the pick. The thought is, this might be a more light-hearted approach. These days, light-hearted approaches are the way to go, though perhaps the NFL’s approach to draft logistics is taking that too seriously.

Former Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem has joined his old pass-rushing partner Julian Okwara in realizing their NFL dreams. Kareem was selected by the ______ in either Friday night’s second/third round or Saturday’s fourth round with the No. ___ overall pick.

As an Irish captain in 2019, Kareem finished with 46 tackles, including 10 for loss with 5.5 sacks, as well as 11 more quarterback hurries. His collegiate career concluded with 26 tackles for loss including 13 sacks. Kareem’s last regular-season moment featured him falling on a fumble in the Stanford end zone, the first touchdown of his collegiate career and a play that guaranteed Notre Dame a third-consecutive double-digit win season.

In his last two years with the Irish, Kareem developed a reputation for playing through pain. If focused on distinctions in definitions, Kareem was often hurt, but never injured. The frequency of his calls for assistance to limp to the sideline with a tweaked ankle earned eye rolls from the skeptical, but Kareem always returned to the game in short order, almost always just as effective as before rolling an ankle.

That presumed toughness theory became fact when after the 2019 season, Kareem revealed he had played much of it with a torn labrum. Recovering from that delayed surgery kept him from showcasing his talents at the NFL combine, forcing Kareem to do as was en vogue this draft cycle and hold his own unofficial Pro Day in a sparse gym near Detroit.

Those limitations undoubtedly negatively impacted Kareem’s draft status, but in the long run, his gritty approach to playing through pain should serve him well in the NFL.

RELATED READING: Some football workouts are more elective than others
Six Notre Dame players ready for NFL draft, half dozen wait nervously
NFL Draft Mad Libs: Julian Okwara

Insert comments on Kareem’s initial salary, with the numbers drawn from Spotrac.com’s database.

NFL Draft Mad Libs: Former Notre Dame defensive end Julian Okwara

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Editor’s Note: Some may take this as a means of doing less work, combining both a draft preview with a draft recap. The truth is, it should be seen as a peek behind the curtain. A draft recap is written long ahead of time, leaning heavily on repurposing the draft preview, so as to publish quickly upon the announcement of the pick. The thought is, this might be a more light-hearted approach. These days, light-hearted approaches are the way to go, though perhaps the NFL’s approach to draft logistics is taking that too seriously.

Former Notre Dame defensive end Julian Okwara will always have one claim his older brother Romeo will not be able to match. Romeo went undrafted in the 2016 draft, whereas Julian heard his name late in the first round Thursday or Friday night in the second/third round. The younger Okwara will head to the insert NFL team here where his pass-rushing skills could make him a contributor from the outset, whenever a football season is able to begin.

Okwara had already racked up four sacks in 2019, including three against Virginia and dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins, when he broke his left fibula at Duke in November, ending what had been a frustrating but underrated senior season. He finished his Irish career with 14.5 sacks and 77 tackles, as well as two interceptions.

On Tuesday, the former Notre Dame captain said he is beyond recovered while appearing on Mike Tirico’s “Lunch Talk Live” on NBCSN.

“I’m 150 percent and ready to go,” Okwara said, adding he was about to go run hills with his brother near their parents’ house in North Carolina, a workout only the younger brother envisioned as a race. “Looking forward to the season and I’ve been rehabbing, no issues, nothing.”

RELATED READING: Some football workouts are more elective than others
Six Notre Dame players ready for NFL draft, half dozen wait nervously

That leg injury nonetheless played a part in Okwara falling down the draft from preseason considerations of being a top-20 pick. It may seem ambitious with hindsight, but before the 2019 season, he was nearly the unanimous pick when the annual “Counting Down the Irish” series predicted the season’s most-impactful players.

Instead of impressing at the NFL combine, he had to hold an unofficial Pro Day on his own and send those clips to the 32 front offices.

Okwara’s response to this insert round here-round selection will undoubtedly echo his approach heading into the draft, only now also paying compliments to mention team nickname here.

“There are a lot of first-round picks who don’t even play football anymore, so I’m not worried about that,” Okwara told Tirico. “It’s just giving me the opportunity to play and I know what I bring to the table and what I can do for a team and help them win a Super Bowl. I’m not really worried about the numbers.

“At the end of the day, I’m going to get a shot, everybody does, and it just matters what you do with it.”

For someone who lived in Nigeria until he was eight and was thus late to whole-heartedly dive into football, not to mention young for his grade, it could be argued Okwara did not so much fall to the overall No. ___ pick, but instead rose to it, just as Romeo has risen from undrafted free agent status to more than $8 million in career earnings to date, largely thanks to a two-year, $6.8 million deal with the Detroit Lions, which he is halfway through.

Insert comments on Julian’s initial salary, with the numbers drawn from Spotrac.com’s database.

Insert standard reference to past Notre Dame draftees at the position, most notably Isaac Rochell as a seventh-round pick in 2017 as the most recent defensive end picked and possibly Stephon Tuitt’s No. 46 selection in 2014 as the most recent defensive end picked higher than Okwara.

If Okwara is snagged before No. 46, cue up boilerplate Renaldo Wynn reference, the No. 21 pick in 1997.

Leftovers & Links: Six Notre Dame players ready for NFL draft, half dozen wait nervously

Alohi Gilman combine
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In what has the makings of being the most absurd NFL draft in history, held entirely online and dependent upon 32 front offices and the League Commissioner’s office all not botching the video chat aspect of it, Brian Kelly may have already removed much of the potential Notre Dame drama.

Various mock drafts might include safety Jalen Elliott or defensive end Jamir Jones as a seventh-round flyer, but the Irish head coach has drawn a clear delineation among Notre Dame’s NFL hopefuls. Six will be drafted; six likely will not be.

“Everyone talks about the six guys we will probably have drafted, but we have six other players that started for me that are really good football players that are going to end up in NFL camps,” Kelly said earlier this month. “It’s promoting (linebacker) Asmar Bilal and Jamir Jones and (running back) Tony Jones Jr., making sure that (receiver) Chris Finke and all these guys get really good opportunities, as well.

“We have 12 players who all I believe can play in the NFL.”

That quote came in a Zoom Q&A with Irish beat writers; a day later Kelly doubled-down while on Mike Tirico’s “Lunch Talk Live” on NBCSN. Delivering the six-and-six thinking once could have been construed as a generalizing verbal slip, but doing so twice indicates Kelly was on message.

“We probably have six guys, right now based on conversations I’ve had with coaches and GMs, that are probably going to be drafted,” he said. “And then we have another  six guys that played prominent roles for us.”

While Kelly would have an idea of these chances in a normal year, his intel this time through the draft process is more thorough, as the NFL has needed to lean on college coaches more than ever, given the lack of in-person evaluations under stay-at-home orders. In what may become a standard moving forward, Notre Dame shared GPS data from practice sessions to illustrate players’ fitness, speed, etc.

RELATED READING: Some Notre Dame football workouts are more elective than others

“Some of the things are a little bit more in-depth than we’ve had in the past,” Kelly said. “We’re getting more information out to the scouts than we ever have in the past. We’re getting information to them like GPS numbers, what’s their work volume like.

“Things they could get when they were normally able to work them out and giving them a hard 20- to 30-minute workout. They’re asking for different information, a lot more science-based information they’re looking for.”

Maybe that thought simply had not occurred to either party in the past, but it is hard to envision a reason not to share it in the future. The data is more football-applicable than a generic 40-yard dash time, and the sample size of it is vastly greater, adding to its pertinence.

Aside from the vague possibility of Elliott hearing his name late — and note that many argue it is better to be an undrafted free agent than a seventh-round pick, the former including some choice in a destination — the greatest drama will come from who the first Irish player picked is, and when.

This space is not one inclined to delve into draft projections. That stems partly from preserving sanity and partly from acknowledging the drawbacks of being so Notre Dame-focused throughout the year; projecting draft chances is as much about the other players in the draft as it is about the Irish players, if not more so.

That said, it is within the realm of feasibility that either defensive end Julian Okwara or tight end Cole Kmet hears his name late in the first round on Thursday. However, it is more likely each goes Friday night in either the second or third rounds, along with receiver Chase Claypool and perhaps defensive end Khalid Kareem.

RELATED READING: Claypool makes most of four seconds at NFL combine
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Cornerback Troy Pride and safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top) will presumably have to wait until Saturday’s final four rounds.

And then the question will be where Elliott, Jones, Jones Jr., Finke, Bilal and cornerback Donte Vaughn sign as free agents.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
The Notre Dame dates that answer your one question
Loss of spring impacts not only Notre Dame’s freshmen, but all freshmen
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, incoming freshman defensive tackle
Longtime Notre Dame fan Coogan becomes newest Irish OL commit
A green ‘Shirt’ a taste of normalcy for Notre Dame fans
30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Three overtimes, two No. 2s, one goal-line fumble

NFL DRAFT PREVIEW COVERAGE
All seven rounds and 255 picks
Rotoworld’s safety rankings
Rotoworld’s cornerback rankings
Rotoworld’s linebacker rankings

OUTSIDE READING
Former Notre Dame teammates James Onwualu, Romeo Okwara making it through isolation together
Heisman Trophy best bets, long shots, value picks
Bursting the bubble: Why sports aren’t coming back soon
Chinese Basketball Association postpones restart until at least July
Can this NBA season be saved? Sources say that optimism is growing
Falwell focuses on critics as coronavirus cases near his university grow

30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Three overtimes, two No. 2s, one goal-line fumble

Everett Golson 2012
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In a season best known for a pair of No. 5s, a duo of No. 2s nearly undid it. If speaking frankly, Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown should have undone it. Only a referee’s oversight allowed Notre Dame to continue its chase of a perfect season, rather than fall at the hands of a middling Pittsburgh.

Such are the breaks needed in college football.

In some respects, the 8-0 Irish should not have needed overtime to beat the Panthers, let alone three overtimes. They outgained the visitors 522 yards to 308, holding the ball for 10 more minutes and running 42 more plays. Notre Dame dominated the game, just as it had the week before in a 30-13 win at No. 8 Oklahoma.

In one respect, a fundamental error costing the Irish the game would have been fitting on a day marred by three avoidable turnovers, the first of which led Irish head coach Brian Kelly to temporarily bench sophomore quarterback Everett Golson.

“We overcame a lot tonight. We overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes,” Kelly said. “Last year that would have been a loss. But our team kept fighting, kept playing.”

That fight included Golson leading a two-touchdown comeback in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 20. A possession after Golson threw an interception in the end zone, entirely overlooking a Pittsburgh defender, his rolling, roving touchdown pass to running back Theo Riddick with just two minutes to go set up Riddick to make a key block on Golson’s option scramble for the subsequent two-point conversion and new Notre Dame life.

“Our quarterback needed to be out there mobile, make some plays outside the pocket,” Kelly said. “I asked him if he was ready to go, he said he was and we put him back in.”

Irish running back Cierre Wood ran efficiently against Pittsburgh, taking 13 carries for 70 yards, but it was this second-overtime, goal-line fumble that nearly cost Notre Dame the game and its undefeated season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Then came overtimes and field goals. Exchanging kicks in the first additional stanza led to the second’s errors. Irish running back Cierre Wood fumbled the ball as he crossed the goal line. All the Panthers needed was a field goal to win.

Wide right by just a couple feet.

“We got a little worried at the end when he missed the field goal,” receiver TJ Jones said. “You’re definitely biting fingernails and holding your breath.”

Pittsburgh kicker Kevin Harper went 4-of-5 against Notre Dame in 2012, but that one miss would have one the game for the Panthers. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It took a bit for the moment’s mistakes to be realized by anybody. After the game, Pittsburgh was not yet aware of the folly, still simply focused on that miss.

“We missed a field goal, that’s why we lost the game,” Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri said. “It came down to a special teams play — we didn’t make the play. Give credit to Notre Dame for being able to finish it off.”

The Irish deserved no such credit. Both cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver Chris Brown were on the field for that fateful field goal attempt. Both were wearing the No. 2. There is no subjectivity to that situation; it should have been a penalty and a Pittsburgh first down. A field goal or a touchdown would have won the Panthers the game. The refs missed the infraction.

Thus, a third overtime.

Notre Dame’s defense held Pittsburgh to a third field goal attempt of the “fifth quarter,” and suddenly Golson had a chance to put an exclamation point on his up-and-down day.

“I think I did a good job of being with the team down the stretch,” he said afterward of an afternoon that included 227 passing yards, 74 rushing yards, three total touchdowns, two turnovers and the game ball. “Coming out today, I know we came out a little flat. As far as me personally, I missed a couple of reads that I should have had. Instead of putting three points on the board, we put six. But I felt like down the stretch we came together, and I felt like I did a great job in the end.”

That end came on a one-yard quarterback sneak, breaking the goal line and stealing the victory.

The Irish reached 9-0 on their way to an unbeaten regular season, with one No. 5 making seven tackles with two plays behind the line of the scrimmage and the other No. 5 finding the end zone four times in various ways.

Yet Manti Te’o and Golson were nearly no match for the pair of No. 2s, if the refs had noticed.

30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC
Te’o’s emotions & interceptions overwhelm No. 18 Michigan
Night games return, ‘Crazy Train’ debuts
Blowing out USC completes Irish return
Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated
The Irish fell, but more importantly, football returned after 9/11
Godsey heroics provide Davie hope
Last-minute Golson-to-Koyack TD beats No. 14 Stanford in the rain
A dramatic, Pyrrhic victory over LSU in 1998
Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991
Honorable Mentions

A green ‘Shirt’ a taste of normalcy for Notre Dame fans

The Shirt 2020
The Shirt
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Today should have been the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practices. Instead, it’s another Saturday without sports and with no sports in sight, except for one consistency, one piece of what will be welcome news to most, if not all, Irish fans.

“The Shirt” is green.

As “The Shirt” committee public relations director Max Perry said, “One of the first questions people ask is, what’s the color?” There is certainly more to it, there are after all two designs, but the color is what comes across on NBC broadcasts when panning across the student section.

Admittedly, a pretty clear disclaimer can be added here, but let’s blow past that for once.

The Shirt was unveiled virtually this year, rather than a first-ever showcase between the Hesburgh Library (“Touchdown Jesus”) and Notre Dame Stadium.

“We knew we had to do a virtual unveiling, because we have to keep this tradition alive,” Perry said. “We don’t want this tradition to be defeated by the times right now.”

The video released on social media took a beat to get to the reveal, but that was quicker than would have been the case in person, quite frankly.

“There are so many great elements of Notre Dame football,” Perry said. “To try to incorporate those traditions and great memories and historical, iconic symbols that are Notre Dame football onto one shirt, it’s difficult. You have to pick and choose the elements that you want on that shirt that you think the fans will enjoy and the ones that really mean a lot to you.”

In 2020, with or without football, those elements include Celtic font, in recognition of the scheduled season opener in Dublin, wrapped around a window from the Golden Dome. Ticket stubs on the back of the shirt emphasize kickoff, one showing a vintage kicker in the No. 31, in honor of this being The Shirt’s 31st year, and one a nod to the student chant released as he boots the ball.

“We highlighted this spirit by drawing out the student’s loud and passionate kickoff chant,” Perry said. “This cheer can also represent a similar motion at the end of the alma mater.”

Again a nod to the Golden Dome, the leaves around the images mimic the tile design on the floor.

Some might wonder why buy The Shirt in a year where football is in doubt due to the coronavirus pandemic. For the committee, the green shirt is a stroke of luck decided upon back in the fall, long before these concerns. That color should help boost sales.

Those sales play a key role in funding student clubs and organizations, along with a student emergency health fund. That has long been the driving cause behind The Shirt.

“The fact that these shirts help clubs and organizations, it’s a great thing to be a part of,” Perry said. “Hopefully we can be a part — help fund that coming home (to campus) process.

“The Shirt medical fund, it goes hand-in-hand with these current times. We’ve always been there for students who need emergency health funds.”

The Shirt is indeed for sale, and there is no rule it cannot be worn in future seasons or on days without games. While Notre Dame beat writers are not known for wearing Irish gear, they do have nephews with 10th birthdays coming up in two weeks.