Opportunity is there for Notre Dame football's Rochell

COMMENTARY

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Opportunity is knocking.

There’s no guarantee Isaac Rochell is physically ready to answer just yet, but the rising sophomore defensive lineman for the Notre Dame football team is taking steps in the right direction.

A baby-faced 6-foot-4 and 287 pounds, Rochell probably would have benefitted from a freshman year dedicated to getting stronger and learning the nuances of playing the defensive line in big-time college football.

Problem was, the youngster from McDonough, Ga., never got the chance.

Playing time is usually a good thing. However, injuries along the defensive front — Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day all missed time — forced Rochell into an expedited preparation period. He played a backup role in 11 games, collecting 10 tackles.

If there’s one area in which a player can make an impact this spring, it’s along the defensive line. Day is the only proven entity. Jarron Jones performed well when pressed into duty late last season, but still needs to show consistency.

In Rochell’s case, it’s a matter of being strong enough and smart enough.

“The first thing that’s pretty clear is that (Rochell) is starting to physically develop,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “He’s a different kid than he was (last) fall, in terms of (being) stronger — he has made gains in the weight room.”

Kelly saw tangible evidence of Rochell’s progress in a one-on-one blocking drill at Saturday’s practice.

“Physically, last year, his legs would crumble underneath him,” Kelly said. “Now, you could see he’s got some bite to him.

“He’s developing physically. Is he a dynamic pass rusher off the edge right now? No, he is not. But, can he be? I think, in time. He’s a lot stronger as a football player.

“Immediately he’s going to help us more (than last season), especially in the early downs. He’s a lot more physical.”

Rochell learned plenty of college football lessons last year going opposite Irish left tackle Zack Martin every day in practice. That experience will likely prove invaluable.

“(Martin) is a great o-lineman,” Rochell said. “I’m excited for him (with his NFL future). I hope it goes well. It was definitely a learning experience. I found out what I can and can’t do against a great o-lineman.

“During camp last year (was my ‘welcome to college football’ moment). Two-a-days, meetings — that’s all you’re doing. It’s totally different than high school. It’s something I enjoyed, but it was my wake-up moment: ‘You’re in college football; time to lock in.’”

The locking in process was a challenge, but Rochell has chosen to see the positives of having gotten on the field as a rookie rather than spending it preparing.

“I’m really happy I did play last year,” he said. “I can lose the pre-game jitters that I had last year. That’s what I’m thankful for, getting used to being in the game.”

Like every other player on the Irish defense, Rochell is focused on learning the system installed by new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. While trying to get a grasp of the complete scope, he’s paying special attention to his individual assignments.

“Both schemes (under former coordinator Bob Diaco and VanGorder), the main thing is being aggressive coming off the ball,” Rochell said. “A lot of the (fundamentals) are the same. The schemes are different, but the (fundamentals) within that are pretty much the same.

“We’ve been working on coming off the ball more. At the end of the day, it’s still about developing as a d-lineman in the general sense.

“We’re all keeping each other accountable. That’s the most important thing with this defense. It starts with the coaches. The coaches help us keep our energy up.

“Spring’s good because there’s not a game in a couple weeks you have to worry about. It’s about learning your own scheme and developing as a player.

“You’re always learning fast; having to develop fast. In the same way, you don’t have the pressure of the game right away. We’re all trying to learn a new scheme.”

Guys like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Nix and Tuitt have given the younger defensive linemen a standard with which to strive for and to be measured by.

That lineage is not lost of Rochell.

“There’s definitely a tradition of great d-linemen,” he said. “That carries over in practice and in the culture of the d-linemen. You work to the point of getting better, that’s what the spring is about.”

It’s about opportunity.

And preparing for the next one that comes around.

Al Lesar: 574-235-6318

Notre Dame's Isaac Rochell, center, goes through drills against Scott Kingsley, left, and Patrick Mazza on Saturday at Loftus Sports Center. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)