Isaac Rochell, Notre Dame defense tired of being considered 'soft'

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Near the end of his first season as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder decided to draw on an outside perspective to motivate his players.

The message? Other teams think Notre Dame is soft. After a loss to USC marked four straight defeats, VanGorder challenged his defense.

The words awoke a slumping defense. The Irish held LSU to 28 points in a Music City Bowl victory. Notre Dame hadn’t allowed fewer than 31 points since the first weekend of October.

“Being a school like Notre Dame, we kind of have a rap where a lot of times people take us as being kind of soft,” said Irish defensive end Isaac Rochell. “'They're smart,' whatever. 'They're not really football players.' So he brought that to our attention and challenged us in that way. That was the biggest thing.”

The lingering taste of that prolonged losing streak and the lesson of what it took to end it have stuck with the Irish through the start of a new year.

“I think a lot of it is a mentality,” Rochell said following the first practice of the spring. “We've had a really good offseason. In these winter workouts, the D-line has really worked hard and kind of developed a new mentality. That's the biggest part and that's going to help going forward."

The Irish want to play more physical and it starts in the weight room. Rochell said the atmosphere in offseason workouts reached a more intense level than it did in his previous years in the program.

They didn’t need a mantra or an objective. Last year’s results left many unsatisfied.

“We just decided (to work harder),” Rochell said. “It's like an unwritten rule. We're going to work a little bit harder and do a little bit more. We didn't have a good season last year. Coming into this season, something has to change and something's gotta give. If you do the same things, you'll get the same results."

If 2015 is going to be different than 2014, the Irish can start with better health on the defensive line. Defensive tackles Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day both missed time with injuries and exposed a lack of depth on the interior of the Irish defense.

The circumstances added a larger load for Rochell in a sophomore season that included his first career start. The 6-foot-4, 287-pounder added some playing time at defensive tackle in addition to his role at defensive end and finished the season as the only player to start all 13 games on the defensive line.

He finished the season with 39 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. Rochell’s production was such a pleasant surprise that VanGorder recently labeled him as the most improved player on Notre Dame’s defense and the team’s best pass rusher. Rochell led the Irish with 10 quarterback hurries last season.

"Isaac’s much better right now,” VanGorder said Monday “He’s a much better pass rusher. Better understanding of it, better coordination of his feet and hands. I see great improvement.”

The offseason coaching shuffle brought a new position coach for Rochell and the defensive line.

"I really like him,” Rochell said of the 30-year coaching veteran, Keith Gilmore. “I like the drill work we've been doing. I think it's been really productive. I like his personality. He's kinda got the dad-like personality. That's cool to have. All-around I really like him."

One of the ways Gilmore started to win over Rochell and other members of the defensive line came when he sought out feedback from the players. Rochell said Gilmore asked the group where they felt they needed to improve the most in order to help tailor his focus as a coach.

“He kind of took the initiative and did it himself. It was cool,” Rochell said. “It welcomes everybody into his office and brings more of a welcoming vibe when a coach says something like that.”

The transition is still in its early stages, but having former defensive line coach Mike Elston nearby coaching the linebackers brings an interesting dynamic. Elston can still share his knowledge with the defensive line and Gilmore. The big guys up front just need to remember to follow Gilmore around at practice and not Elston.

“It's weird. I'm so used to him (Elston) during practice,” Rochell said. “He still kind of coaches us and gives us pointers. He was the D-line coach for a long time, so it's not like he lost that knowledge. We still talk to him all the time, go to his office and stuff to talk to him. It's a different vibe, but it's working."

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame’s Isaac Rochell, left, celebrates a big stop with teammate Jaylon Smith during the Notre Dame vs. North Carolina college football game on Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN