ND NOTEBOOK: Kareem, Okwara determined to have strong senior years

CHAD WEAVER | THE GOSHEN NEWSNorthwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) is sacked by Notre Dame defensive lineman Julian Okwara (42) during the third quarter in this Nov. 3, 2018 file photo at Northwestern. At right is Notre Dame defensive lineman Khalid Kareem (53). Okwara and Kareem are both captains for the 2019 Notre Dame season.

SOUTH BEND — Julian Okwara is ready to start talking about sacks and not quarterback hurries.

The senior defensive lineman had 20 quarterback hurries for Notre Dame last year — but only eight sacks, which was still good enough to tie the team high with Jerry Tillery. Okwara also had 39 tackles, including 12.5 for loss, for a defense that gave up a miniscule 18.2 points-per-game in 2018.

His counterpart on the defensive line, senior Khalid Kareem, also has high expectations for the 2019 campaign. He had 42 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2018 and finished second in quarterback hurries last year with eight, only trailing Okwara in that category.

Together, Kareem and Okwara are expected to be one of the best defensive linemen duos in the country.

“If we listen to coaching, get into the playbook and just do everything we need to do, whatever the team needs us to be, I think we’ll be alright,” Okwara said. “There’s guys watching (us), but we do a great job of staying in-house and keeping our minds level-headed. I don’t think we let the outside noise get to us. We know, internally, that we need to go out there and work every day to be the best.

“We don’t need outside voices telling us if we’re good or not. I think we all do a great job of staying away from the critics and stuff like that. It’s nice just being able to go out there and play, be comfortable with the playbook and everything like that.”

Kareem and Okwara are the top two returners on the defensive line, but Notre Dame also has Daelin Hayes and Kurt Hinish back for another season. With four players coming back with ample amounts of game experience, the defensive line will be seen as one of the Irish’s greatest strengths in 2019.

With all the returning experience might come pressure to perform at a higher level this season. Kareem doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t really feel like there’s a pressure. I feel like we’ve always felt like we’re the tip of the spear, so everything starts with us,” Kareem said. “We just need to keep on doing what we’ve been doing the entire time and keep building on our game.”

Both Kareem and Okwara were selected as team captains for the Fighting Irish this year. They’re two of the seven captains voted on by the players and coaching staff.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Kareem’s accountability led him to being a captain.

“(Kareem) recognizes how important it is to hold his peers accountable,” Kelly said. “Those little things about, ‘we’re going to be held accountable all the time.’ He really shows that accountability amongst the peers about doing it the right way all the time.”

REPLACING KMET

With projected starting tight end Cole Kmet out for six-to-10 weeks with a broken collarbone, this leaves a hole open on the offense. One man expected to fill-in for Kmet while he recovers is Brock Wright, a junior from Cypress, Texas.

Wright has seen minimal playing time at Notre Dame so far, recording just two catches for 12 yards and a touchdown a season ago. Kelly is confident Wright can step up and be an adequate replacement for Kmet.

“We’ve seen now that he’s much sharper in-and-out (of breaks). He can get separation. He moves so much better. So, I think that re-working has been much more of change of direction, explosiveness, getting in-and-out of the breaks,” Kelly said. “He’s always had good hands. That’s never been a concern for us.”

FRESHMAN PUNTER?

The Irish are replacing two prolific special teams players this year, as Tyler Newsome and Justin Yoon both graduated in May. Newsome was a team captain as a punter, averaging 44 yards per punt in his career. Yoon left Notre Dame as the program’s all-time leading scorer with 358 points.

While it’s uncertain who will replace Yoon, one person in line to take over Newsome’s position is freshman Jay Bramblett. The Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native has been a standout in fall camp so far. Kelly has noticed his performance as well, noting there’s a chance Bramblett may do more than just punt.

“I think he’s made really good progress … his ability is real,” Kelly said. “He’s a 4.5, 4.6 (seconds) hangtime guy, which is what we’re looking for … The moment is not going to be too big for him. We think he’ll be able to bounce back from a bad kick.

“He’s got a terrific arm — just throwing that out there. High school quarterback, can do a lot.”

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN