Notebook: Isaac Rochell almost followed dream to Clemson

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

CLEMSON, S.C. — Isaac Rochell dreamed of nights like this in Death Valley.

Except in the dreams he was wearing Clemson orange, was part of Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ vision to build a culture of elite defense year after year, and was just an hour-and-forty-five minute drive from home.

Then came the wake-up call for the now Notre Dame junior defensive end, courtesy of his mom.

“I was a visit away from going there,” Rochell said in the days leading up to sixth-ranked Notre Dame’s water-logged and wind-swept road test Saturday night at No. 12 Clemson.

“Then I came here randomly and liked it up here (Notre Dame). My mom made me come up here. So if my mom wouldn’t have made me come up here, I would’ve been wearing orange. I was very close.”

Instead Rochell was part of an ND defense that on Saturday night was trying to disrupt Clemson sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, a former five-star prospect who plays like it, and the inexperienced offensive line in front of him.

It unfolded just like a nightmare in the opening minutes of the game for Rochell and the Irish. Clemson scored on its first two possessions of the game, and rather easily at that in rolling to a 14-0 command at the 8:43 mark of the first quarter.

But Rochell and the Irish were able to push back over the balance of the first half, holding Clemson to 48 yards on 17 plays.

Rochell was a four-star prospect at Eagle’s Christian Landing Academy in McDonough, Ga., and had the likes of Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Michigan, Ole Miss and Tennessee among his suitors.

Two things that drew him to Clemson were Tigers defensive ends coach Marion Hobby and Clemson’s academics. He attended a Clemson-UNC game on an unofficial visit his junior year and loved it.

“The only thing that I really knew about Notre Dame is they came to visit the school and a teacher at the school was like, ‘It’s a really big deal,” Rochell said. “And I didn’t really understand it at the time, but given that and my mom wanted me to come up here, I figured it was worth a shot.

“I think through the recruiting process I always knew when I got somewhere that it was supposed to be that I would get a feeling, because I prayed about it a lot. So when I came up (to Notre Dame), I just knew I liked the guys.

“Romeo (Okwara) was my host and I loved Romeo. I was like, ‘There’s something different about this place.’ So I just felt the feeling and decided this was the place I needed to be.”

Personnel matters

Redshirt freshman tight end Nic Weishar made his first career start on Saturday night.

• Freshman C.J. Sanders replaced Amir Carlisle after ND’s first kickoff return. Sanders’ first career kickoff return went for 46 yards.

His second, on the opening kickoff of the second half went for 26 yards, but he fumbled the ball at the end of it, and Clemson recovered on the Irish 29. Three plays later, the Tigers had a 21-3 lead, thanks to a 21-yard scoring run by quarterback Deshaun Watson.

• Fourteen scholarship freshmen made the Irish travel roster. On offense, it was running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams; wide receivers Miles Boykin, Equanimeous St. Brown and Sanders; tight end Alizé Jones and quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

The freshman defensive players represented were cornerback Nick Coleman; linebackers Asmar Bilal and Te’von Coney; safeties Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams; defensive lineman Jerry Tillery — and from special teams, kicker Justin Yoon.

• Yoon ‘s first-quarter field goal of 46 yards was the longest of his fledgling career.

By the numbers

A reflection of the wet weather Saturday night: Notre Dame had 36 game balls certified for the game, per Irish football head equipment manager Ryan Grooms. Typically, they only have 12 to put in play.

• The Irish had dominated the first quarter of their first four games, but not Saturday night.

Clemson scored on its first two possessions and took a 14-3 lead after the first quarter. The Tigers also held a 116-50 command in total yards and a 5-4 edge in first downs.

In ND’s first four games combined, the Irish had given up only seven first-quarter points, while scoring 46 of their own. Their advantage in first downs was 33-8 and in total yards 606-242.

• The Irish came into the game not only undefeated (5-0) in games in which the pope was in the United States, including last Saturday’s 62-27 mauling of UMass, ND came in unscathed in the first game after the pope left the country.

That comprised wins over Army (17-0) in 1965, over Air Force (38-13) in 1979, over Purdue (44-20) in 1987 and Army (28-27) in 1995.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, left, with Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder watched the Irish defense struggle early in a 24-22 loss at Clemson on Saturday night. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)