The beauty in Notre Dame's Isaac Rochell becoming a beast

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The recent practice standoffs between Notre Dame’s vaunted offensive line and its largely uncelebrated counterparts on the defensive front have become curative mood therapy for Brian Kelly.

It’s not just nuanced beauty. It’s the first tangible evidence that the ugliest, scariest unanswered question about the 2015 Irish football team may have a concrete retort, capable of recalibrating what this squad’s already lofty ceiling might look like.

Can Notre Dame concoct a viable pass rush?

“Isaac Rochell is a beast,” the ND head coach adulated earlier this week. “I mean he’s a beast. If he continues to play at this level, he’s virtually unblockable in a one-on-one situation.”

Senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day remains the face, the voice, the heart, and, for all impractical purposes, the hair of the defensive line. Meanwhile, Rochell, a 6-foot-4, 287-pound junior end, epitomizes the unit’s much-needed strides forward.

The most overlooked asset on the 2014 ND defense that finished 74th nationally in sacks (with 26) and 71st in total defense, the steady, versatile, run-stopping Rochell is flexing a new dimension this August — explosiveness.

Off the edge, up the gut (where he often plays on third down), even against the offensive tackle most pro scouts believe to be the best prospect at that position in the nation (teammate Ronnie Stanley), Rochell is evolving into the penetrating presence the Irish defense painfully lacked last season.

Sacks, in and of themselves, aren’t one of the consistent statistical markers that fuel national title runs. Of last year’s four playoff teams, only national champion Ohio State (13th in sacks) ranked among the nation’s top 35.

Alabama, Oregon and Florida State were 61st, 38th and 114th respectively among the 125 FBS teams.

But Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme is predicated on pressure — in the form of sacks, turnovers forced, rushed passes and overall mass confusion for the offense.

In reality, confusion reigned all too often among the ND defensive players trying to execute the attacking scheme in VanGorder’s first season, in 2014.

“Two years with the same defense, we kind of start to understand concepts more and we can kind of get a feel for what’s going on and what he might call,” Rochell said. “But he throws curveballs all the time.”

VanGorder will have more bite on those curves if Rochell’s newest dimension endures and improves.

It’s not as if the McDonough, Ga., product’s timeline parallels, say, Rudy’s or even former walk-on Joe Schmidt’s.

Rochell grew up country strong, both physically and mentally, living on a farm with a hulking 6-foot-7 father, Steve, a former college basketball player at Texas-Pan American who still refuses to yield athletically to his youngest son without a battle.

Same goes for Rochell’s older brother, Matt, an offensive lineman at Air Force.

But Isaac learned to push back, and he did it well enough on the football field at Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy to be tagged a four-star prospect and garner scholarship offers from Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Clemson, Florida and Florida State, among others.

His skill set matched up well with then-Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s read/react 3-4 scheme. So VanGorder’s switch to a 4-3, aggressive look in the spring of 2014 brought culture shock.

“It’s just a different mentality,” he said, “because in the 3-4, you don’t come off the ball as much. There’s not as much emphasis on penetration. So that was the biggest thing, changing stances and things like that.”

Still, Rochell managed 39 tackles in the transition year. His 7.5 tackles for loss were tied for the second-most on the team. His modest 2.5 sacks were only 1.5 off the team lead, and his 10 quarterback hurries were the most for the Irish.

He also batted down three passes and blocked a kick.

“He’s faster, stronger, just an outstanding player,” Kelly said.

How Rochell arrived as a more prototypical 4-3 end catalyzed by watching lots of clips of NFL players, working on developing a quicker first step and listening avidly to new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore's advice of improving his pass-rush moves with his … hands.

“He just kind of exposes you to different moves and different things, and he helps you find what you would be best at in a pass rush,” Rochell said.

That Rochell isn’t alone in his improvement among ND’s defensive linemen may be the most significant development in the pass-rush realm for the Irish.

The only real antidote to fast-pace offenses that kept the Irish defense at times last season from being able to flip personnel and employ niche defensive packages was for the ND base defense to be able to manufacture pressure on third down when called upon.

“The mentality of the defensive line has really changed this year,” Rochell said. “I feel we’re really just trying to be more aggressive and take over and change the game.

“I just think the focus right now is just getting everybody to move forward, and we’ll see where that takes us. Everybody will be a beast then.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive end Isaac Rochell, here celebrating a big stop last season with teammate Jaylon Smith, is giving Irish head coach Brian Kelly reason to celebrate lately. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)