SOUTH BEND — The Notre Dame defensive line returns a lot of talent. The Louisville offensive line is coming off one of the worst seasons for a line in the country last year. Needless to say, the Fighting Irish defense is licking its chops for Monday’s showdown in Louisville.
“It’s exciting, but we’re going to play them like every other team,” senior defensive lineman Khalid Kareem said. “Try to pick them apart the best we can. We’ll have a great game plan ready for them. It’ll be exciting.”
It’s a matchup Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly knows the Irish have to dominate to prevail in the season opener.
“Our defensive line has to exert itself,” Kelly said. “That’s one of our strengths. They’re going to have to play at a high level.”
The Cardinals allowed 43 sacks in 2018, tied with Kent State and Northern Illinois for the third-most in the country. Only Hawaii (46) and Oregon State (48) allowed more.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish had 34 sacks as a defense a year ago. Three of their top pass rushers — Kareem, senior Julian Okwara and senior Daelin Hayes — are back from last season. The trio combined for 14.5 sacks in 2018.
Setting the tone with his play up front is important for Kareem.
“It’s always good to come out strong and set the tone for the season,” Kareem said. “Try to build upon that.”
Junior safety Alohi Gilman said the rest of the defense feeds off the front four when they’re dominating the line of scrimmage.
“It’s huge. They’ve been doing it for years,” Gilman said. “Last year, I would say, was a good showing of that. But it works hand-in-hand. If they do their job, it makes our job easier. If we do our job, it makes their job easier.
“They’re a bunch of dogs up there, a bunch of hunters out there that love to compete and love to get after the quarterback. So, it’s really a nice thing to have.”
While the Louisville offensive line struggled as a whole, one player on the Cardinals front line stuck out — literally. Mekhi Becton is a 6-foot-7, 369-pound left tackle. His ceiling is one of the highest in college football.
“I think he’s going to be a high (NFL) draft pick, somebody that, again, I think when we watch film, we’ve been very impressed with his ability,” Kelly said. “We’ve got some outstanding pass-rushers, and I think they’ll be challenged in this ballgame. He really is a player that jumped out at us.
“I don’t want to assume anything, but maybe he’s going to be on his own and they’re going to help some others.”
Kareem will be tasked with going against Becton throughout the game. He’s watched the tape on the junior offensive lineman and has an idea of what he wants to do against the big man.
“See some key things here and there that I think I can exploit,” Kareem said. “I don’t want to say too much, but I definitely have a game plan for him going into Monday.”
Okwara and Kareem steal a lot of the headlines, in large part to both being named captains this year for the Irish. There’s one player Kelly made sure to mention, though, that’s flying under the radar.
“One guy that we haven’t talked much about, and I will just say that he’s had his best camp since he’s been here, is Daelin Hayes,” Kelly said. “I think that says a lot about what we can do, when we haven’t talked about a guy like that.”
Kareem has noticed Hayes standing out in camp as well.
“Daelin’s a great player,” Kareem said. “I feel like a lot of people are going to sleep on him. So, I would just say to watch out. He’s going to make some plays.”
Notre Dame hopes its three-headed monster of defensive ends will be good enough to overwhelm the Cardinals on the road.
“We’ve worked really hard at developing our defensive line,” Kelly said. “We hope they have an impact in the game. … I know our guys are pretty good. We’re going to do what we do. I’m certain they know that we’ve got some pretty good players.”