Sophomore Isaac Rochell epitomizes Notre Dame's confident young talent on defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —Isaac Rochell’s career résumé includes a mere two tackles more than kicker/punter Kyle Brindza’s.

Yet the 6-foot-4, 287-pound sophomore defensive end from McDonough, Ga., on the verge of his first collegiate start, percolates with the confidence of Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Stephon Tuitt, whose legacy Rochell is about to step into.

“This defense allows you to play faster and allows you to play more physical,” offered Rochell, whose rise to the top of the depth chart was aided by senior Ishaq Williams’ disappearance from it.

Williams, starting cornerback KeiVarae Russell, starting wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, reserve linebacker Kendall Moore and backup safety Eilar Hardy, will all sit out 17th-ranked Notre Dame’s Saturday matchup with Rice, the school’s 85th home opener at ND Stadium but first to be played on artificial FieldTurf.

The five players should know their long-term fate soon, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, as the investigation phase of the academic fraud probe that started July 29 moves into the hearing phase.

The five players soon go before honesty committees of the respective college or department that offered the courses in question.

If and when they return to the field, the four defensive players will step back into a scheme orchestrated by new coordinator Brian VanGorder that will likely look much different in October/November than it will in Saturday afternoon’s season opener.

“We want to graduate into a defense that can give you a lot of different looks,” VanGorder said. “We want to make the offense work.”

As it stands, the scheme and the inexperience that pervades the front seven is the wildest of wild cards in projecting Notre Dame’s bottom line, which, for the first time in Kelly’s five seasons, figures to be more buoyed by its offense than its defense.

Rochell, one of five Irish defensive front-seven starters with fewer than two career starts, epitomizes the young players whose belief that VanGorder can play X-and-O chess at an elite level pushes them through growing pains. At least so far.

Rochell had to play through actual pains last season as a true freshman backup, a high ankle sprain limiting his mobility and sometimes paralyzing his thought process from the midpoint of the season forward.

“I had a lot of external factors last year that I was dealing with,” he said. “I just think the biggest thing is I really struggled last year just getting used to being a college athlete as well as a college student. I think that was the biggest thing.”

Which likely means he’ll be dispensing a lot of advice this fall among his defensive linemates. As many as five true freshman could see action Saturday on the ND defensive line, with more possible later in the season.

There’s a chance early enrollee Andrew Trumbetti, even on the depth chart with junior Romeo Okwara, could start at the end position opposite Rochell, which would make him the first ND freshman defensive end to start a season opener since Anthony Weaver in 1998.

“I tell (them) all the time, ‘Calm down, it’s no big deal,” Rochell said of the freshmen. “The biggest thing is just getting that first play over with. That’s how it was for me last year.”

Jhonny Williams, a Berrien Springs product, though a non-starter may be the most intriguing of the D-line newcomers.

“He’s fast and he’s physical, super fast,” Rochell said. “I mean, he’s a good player. I think his biggest asset is his speed, for sure.”

Rochell, less speedy but much more physical, seems built for the 3-4, ND’s base defense over the past four seasons but one they liked to flip into a 4-3 in obvious passing situations. But he prefers the 4-3 base VanGorder has adopted.

“I think (he is) evolving, learning, his position,” Kelly said of how that has been translating. “He's somebody that's put on a lot of weight — stronger, more physical.

“I think he's really adapting to his skill set and strength. So evolving in the sense that, ‘Here is who you are. Here is who you are turning into as a football player. Now use these strengths to your advantage.’”

Interestingly the scout team quarterback whom Rochell and the rest of the defense has been using their lessons on is VanGorder’s son, Montgomery, a 6-foot, 215-pound freshman from Buford, Ga.

The learning, though, is perpetual.

“You take a freshman that just walked in here,” VanGorder said. “How long is it going to take for him to really get it and play at a high level that is required at Notre Dame? Maybe it’s a two-year process until he really gets it. So how do we speed that process up?”

And that’s where Kelly feels VanGorder’s biggest strength lies — as a teacher, as someone who can microwave the learning curve.

An added wrinkle is that Rice has changed offensive coordinators since last season, and the first real look VanGorder will see of the refurbished scheme will be Saturday afternoon.

Rice head coach David Bailiff promoted wide receivers coach and Indiana native Billy Lynch and quarterbacks coach Larry Edmondson to share the coordinator duties.

“We’ve all got a great challenge, we’ve all got to be on point,” VanGorder said. “We’ve all got to be ready to adjust. Let’s see how we all handle that.”

The Irish defense may or may not have to deal with Rice wideout Jordan Taylor, a 6-5, 210-pound senior who has been the Owls’ leading receiver the past two seasons.

Bailiff deemed Taylor questionable earlier in the week for Saturday’s game and held him out of the final week of training camp because of a foot injury.

Bailiff told the Houston Chronicle that Taylor’s pain threshold would determine his availability for the ND game after an MRI revealed no structural damage. A Rice spokesman said Friday evening that Taylor did make the trip and whether he plays would be a game-time decision.

Even without Russell, the strength of ND’s defense figures to be its secondary and pass defense. Rochell is one of the many pieces up front that will determine if the overall unit can improve enough to shake off some alarming regressions on defense from last season, the most distressing being a drop from 11th to 70th in rushing defense.

Notre Dame allowed 19.02 points per game during the last four years under departed coordinator Bob Diaco (now the head coach at UConn), which ranks as the ninth-best average among FBS teams during that span.

“I don’t know where we are right now,” VanGorder said. “The one thing I do know is there’s a lot better football in front of us.

“We can be a lot better than we are. And that’s got to be the standard — improve, improve and get better.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @ehansenNDI

Notre Dame sophomore defensive end Isaac Rochell looks to make a big impact as he makes his first collegiate start Saturday against Rice. (SBT File Photo)