ND FOOTBALL: Irish could have five defenders drafted in NFL Draft

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is sacked by Notre Dame defensive lineman Julian Okwara (42) on Nov. 3, 2018, at Northwestern. At right is Notre Dame defensive lineman Khalid Kareem (53).

SOUTH BEND — All five Notre Dame defensive players who attended the NFL Combine in February have a chance to be selected during this week’s NFL Draft.

Defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem and defensive backs Alohi Gilman, Troy Pride and Jalen Elliott could all hear their names called at some point during the three-day, seven-round extravaganza.

Of the five, four of them — Okwara, Kareem, Gilman and Elliott — were team captains in 2019, giving them leadership attributes heading into the draft.

Chad Reuter of NFL.com had all five players selected in his final mock draft on April 17. Here’s a look at the five pro prospects, in the order Reuter has them being drafted in:

Julian Okwara, defensive end — Okwara finished the 2019 campaign with 19 tackles and five sacks. Those numbers are lower than normal, though, because the defensive end suffered a season-ending fractured left fibula against Duke. For his career, Okwara had 79 tackles and 15.5 sacks.

Projections of where Okwara will be drafted this week vary. Originally thought of as a second- or third-round pick, news surrounding Okwara is he may be drafted late in the first round Thursday night. In fact, Reuter has him as a first-rounder, going 31st overall to the Houston Texans. The 6-foot-4, 252-pound lineman has the versatility to play either defensive end or outside linebacker, making him a valuable commodity. Okwara’s health will be a factor, though, which may lead to him sliding out of the first round.

Troy Pride, defensive back — Pride saw action in all four years he was at Notre Dame. He started the last two years at cornerback, helping the Irish become one of the stingiest defenses in the country against the pass. In his senior year last season, he recorded 40 tackles and one interception.

Pride had a strong Combine performance, running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, the 20-yard shuttle in 4.25 seconds and recording a 35.5-inch vertical jump. He’s projected by Reuter to be drafted in the third round, 77th overall, by the Denver Broncos. Pride has all the physical abilities to be a solid cornerback in the NFL. Now it’s a matter of putting it all together.

Khalid Kareem, defensive end — Kareem managed to record 46 tackles and 5.5 sacks in his senior season in South Bend. He tore his left labrum against Duke late in the season but still played his final three regular season games and the bowl game for the Fighting Irish. He had surgery on the shoulder in January, forcing him to not compete in drills at the Combine.

Still, Reuter had Kareem as a fourth-round pick, 134th overall, to the Baltimore Ravens. At 6-4 and 268 pounds, Kareem could be a valuable backup defensive end in his first season in the NFL. With his ability to pass rush, expect Kareem to be featured on a lot of third-and-long defensive packages when the defense will be trying to put pressure on the quarterback.

Alohi Gilman, defensive back — The backbone of Notre Dame’s defense the past two seasons, Gilman became one of the more memorable Irish players despite only playing two years in South Bend. After transferring from Navy, Gilman became one of the key defensive players, starting at strong safety all 26 games he played in South Bend. In 2019, Gilman tallied 74 tackles, a sack and an interception.

His 2019 stats were not as good as his 2018 ones, though, as he recorded 94 tackles and two interceptions in his junior campaign. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds and had a 32-inch vertical jump at the Combine, which aren’t overly impressive numbers. He’s currently a sixth-round projection, 192nd overall, by Reuter to the New England Patriots. Gilman is more of a player who plays with passion, though, and has demonstrated leadership qualities during his time at Notre Dame. Those might be strong enough to land him a spot on an NFL roster.

Jalen Elliott, defensive back — Like Gilman, Elliott had a better season in 2018 than in 2019. In 2018, Elliott recorded 67 tackles, four interceptions and seven pass breakups. In 2019, those numbers fell to 49, two and two, respectively.

Partner that with an OK showing at the Combine, and Reuter has Elliott being a seventh-round pick, 217th overall, to the New York Giants. If drafted to New York, he’ll be reunited with former teammate Julian Love.

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.

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