Notre Dame football: Injuries forcing Rochell into mix

Bob Wieneke

SOUTH BEND -- The pasta, Isaac Rochell will tell you, is one of the best items available. Not far behind are any of the sandwiches provided in the Notre Dame dining halls.

Yes, the freshman from McDonough, Ga., is a fan of almost any of the choices he has at lunch and dinner, but don't dare compare it to what mom can cook up.

"Whoooa. No, I wouldn't say that," the freshman defensive end cautioned. "But it's definitely good."

So too has been Rochell. He has added depth to a defensive line that has taken numerous hits, which has helped vault Rochell into a prominent position.

Chase Hounshell, who missed the 2012 season because of a shoulder injury, suffered another shoulder injury in the spring and was lost for the season well before it began. During the summer, heralded recruit Eddie Vanderdoes, who could have played tackle or end, transferred to UCLA. Tony Springmann, expected to be one of the top reserves, suffered a season-ending knee injury during fall camp. The latest victim is Sheldon Day, who has missed almost all of the last three games because of an ankle sprain.

And just like that, Rochell is a top backup, with a reaction that falls in step with Irish coach Brian Kelly's next-man-in mantra.

"It's one of those things you have to expect," Rochell said. "It's definitely something you know it's coming, especially if you see somebody go down."

While other players have gone down with injury, Rochell's playing time has gone up. His numbers won't put him on any All-America watch lists (3 total tackles), but what he, along with Jarron Jones, has been able to do is spell starters Stephon Tuitt and Kona Schwenke, keeping the front-liners fresh for late-game situations.

A case in point came in last Saturday's win over Arizona State, when ND's defense applied pressure to ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, who was forced into two late interceptions that allowed ND to capture its Shamrock Series game in Arlington, Texas.

One of the key performers in that game was Tuitt, who is surging after a slow start. The two Georgia products crossed paths when Rochell was a high school freshman. Rochell did not play in the game, but Tuitt did, knocking the quarterback for Rochell's Eagles Landing Christian Academy team out of the game. Rochell watched Tuitt in that game, and he's watching Tuitt in games and practice this season.

"Just watching him play and watching him work hard in practice, even at the level that he's at, that's one of those things that you really focus on," Rochell said.

Rochell's focus early during his ND tenure was on weight gain, and now it's become more of a weight maintain. He was listed at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds on signing day, but he's since added 15 pounds while also dropping an inch to 6-4.

"I think the main thing, it's maintaining your strength while getting stronger. I don't think it's a huge, huge concern to really bulk up or get really stronger in the season," Rochell said. "I think the focus is to not lose a lot of weight and just kind of maintain that strength."

Still, there are size and strength differentials on the field and Rochell is typically on the short end.

Despite going up against offensive linemen who might have 30, 40, maybe 50 pounds on him, Rochell is able to put any shortcomings out of mind.

"You're just thrown into it and you just do it. You don't line up and you're like, 'Oh this guy's 50 pounds more than me,'" Rochell said. "You have your job. You do your job. You act on your coaching and you do what you have to do."

Injuries have helped move freshman Isaac Rochell up the depth chart on the defensive line. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN