Speculation regarding freshman defensive linemen making an early contribution is mere chatter the first week of February.
It takes on a whole new meaning when those prospects enroll mid-year, get into the weight program during the winter months, and then have an opportunity to begin the indoctrination into the process during spring drills.
Defensive end/linebacker Daelin Hayes and defensive end/three-technique Khalid Kareem are much-needed support to a Notre Dame defensive line that held the point of attack well in 2015 under line coach Keith Gilmore, but lacked a consistent pass-rush presence.
“It all starts up front,” said Gilmore after playing an instrumental role in landing Hayes and Kareem out of Michigan.
“If you have a good defensive front, you have an opportunity to have a good defense. We were lacking in the pass rush area, so that’s an area we really focused on.”
There’s much to do for Hayes and Kareem before they make a contribution to Notre Dame’s cause on fall Saturdays. Hayes, in particular, needs a steady diet of weight training and conditioning following shoulder issues/surgery that curtailed much of his productivity during his prep days. But these are two prospects upon which future defensive lines are formed.
Gone are the versatile Sheldon Day and senior-surging rush end Romeo Okwara. Re-enter Jarron Jones, who missed all but the Fiesta Bowl following August knee surgery.
Also returning are powerful big end Isaac Rochell, promising rookie performer Jerry Tillery, pass-rush hopeful Andrew Trumbetti, relatively experienced junior-to-be nose tackle Daniel Cage, part-time ’15 contributors Jonathan Bonner and Grant Blankenship, red-shirted sophomore Jay Hayes, and three red-shirted freshman interior defensive linemen.
There are just enough unproven commodities up front to allow for the possibility of immediate contributions from the two most highly-regarded defensive linemen in the Class of ’16.
Kareem had an incredible 36 tackles for loss as a senior at Harrison High School in Farmington, Mich., and 34 sacks in his final two seasons with the Hawks.
“The first thing I look for is length,” said Gilmore of the checklist he relies upon when scouting defensive linemen. “What’s his power base like? His lower body? Does he have a power base where he can hold the point of attack and be effective? And then I look at how quickly he gets off the snap and can get in the backfield.”
Hayes and Kareem offer the promise of all those qualities, and some intangibles as well.
“The thing I like about Daelin more than anything else is that you give him something that is really definitive and tangible and he’s going to go after it,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“Whatever it’s been, he’s worked toward it. He said, ‘I want to be a mid-year enrollee. I want to go to Notre Dame.’ Once he settles on something, there’s nothing that gets in his way. He’s a bright, articulate kid. He knows what he wants.”
Gilmore said Hayes would be limited in the physical contact he takes in the spring. But as the shoulder improves and he learns the process/system, Hayes offers what the Irish need up front.
“He’s already a pretty big kid and he’s only going to get bigger,” Kelly added. “He has such a range of positions that he can play. We’re just going to let that naturally happen, and where there’s an area he can help us…We know getting after the quarterback would be a great start for him.”
In the short term, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will focus on getting Hayes to understand the base defense while “painting a picture of our concepts.”
Kareem draws comparisons by Gilmore to Rochell -- a big end with three-technique physical skills. VanGorder also sees Kareem’s position flexibility.
“Physically, we’ve got to see where (Kareem’s) body and weight go moving forward,” VanGorder said. “He’s a very fundamental player for sure. He’s a great leverage player. Outside-in (first end, then tackle) would be his development.”
“They moved (Kareem) around a little bit in high school,” Gilmore added. “He played down inside. I see him as a kid who can play the big end, but when we get into our sub packages, he can move down inside to give you a little bit of an advantage that way.”
It’s a long time before Hayes and Kareem can be projected in the mix this fall. But with their early enrollment, the clock has started and the process of piecing together the defensive line of 2016 has begun.