Notre Dame DE Isaac Rochell eats quarterbacks, drinks coffee

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Isaac Rochell is a little bigger than your run-of-the-mill barista.

At 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, Notre Dame’s senior defensive end is built like a slab of concrete — virtually impenetrable — with arms that swing like sledgehammers and black curls twisted into messy braids. He is a sturdy mass of muscles and menace, a run-swallowing wrecking ball that crashes continuously into crumbling offensive lines.

But though his diet consists almost exclusively of cowering quarterbacks, Notre Dame’s most proven defensive lineman needs something else to wash them down.

“I really like coffee,” Rochell said on Friday. “But I don’t know if it’s as much coffee as it is the environment. I like what coffee does. I think that there’s two things that bring people together in that unique way – coffee and alcohol, honestly.

“But I don’t want to have a bar when I get older. So coffee is the other thing that brings people together for great conversation.”

So what did Rochell do? Earlier this year, in his quest for a summer internship, the McDonough, Ga., native searched on Google for a coffee shop that also helped the community. He landed on Street Bean Coffee in Seattle, a non-profit coffee shop that employs local homeless youth.

Street Bean had no tangible connection to Notre Dame, nor had it ever employed a summer intern.

But then, out of nowhere, a defensive lineman knocked at the door.

“I’ve always wondered how I could follow my passion. I love coffee, and I love being able to help people,” Rochell said. “So it was weirdly right on what I like. So I just called the director out there, Merri O’Brien, and pretty much just asked straight up, ‘Can I come out there? I’d love to learn more.’”

He came, and he learned. Rochell spent two weeks in Seattle, absorbing the ins and outs of running a non-profit organization.

(And yes, in between he also learned how to serve a simmering cup of joe.)

“I learned about non-profits, learned about coffee,” Rochell said. “But the majority of it was the business side of running a non-profit — so budgeting, marketing and stuff like that.”

Now, Notre Dame’s burgeoning barista returns to his previous life, to uprooting offensive tackles and swallowing running backs whole. Rochell, who has played in 37 of 39 career games in South Bend, contributed 63 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hits in 2015.

And, according to head coach Brian Kelly, he did it all with an aching back.

“He’s had some back issues since he’s been here, and he’s been physically able to do everything (this summer),” Kelly said. “This is the first time in two years he’s been able to squat heavy, do all the leg lifts, do all the things that’s necessary to be explosive.

“So I see him being a great leader for us and then having the kind of strength to maintain that throughout the year. He had the tendency to drop body weight and maybe get a little bit worn down during the season. He looks really good right now.”

In his senior season, Rochell’s list of responsibilities continues to expand. Now, it’s not enough to make tackles, to chase sacks, to show up — game after game, regardless of aches and pains.

He must contribute more than ever while pushing his teammates to do the same.

“I think it’s my job just to instill confidence in (the young defensive linemen),” Rochell said. “I believe in them and I know our coaches believe in them, but sometimes as a young player you don’t necessarily believe in yourself. You look around and say, ‘I’m the youngest guy. He’s a senior.’

“So for me, it’s saying, ‘Hey, you can be the best in the country. You just need to do it.’ They’ve done such a good job of responding to that, and I’ve learned to love those guys even though they’re two or three years younger than me.”

Suddenly, Sheldon Day is gone. So is Romeo Okwara. The defensive line consists of Rochell, nose tackle Jarron Jones and a heap of promising youngsters.

But while the names have changed, Rochell’s expectations remain unyielding.

“I think the expectation is to be the best in the country,” Rochell said. “I don’t see why we couldn’t be. Like I mentioned earlier, the thing that would hurt us is just the lack of confidence. But we have the ability and we have the depth this year to be the best in the country, so that’s what the expectation is.”

As for Rochell, the expectation is that he’ll feast on inferior opponents throughout a dominant senior season, then advance to a career in the NFL.

Beyond that, expect him to help as many people as possible — and, just maybe, brew some coffee along the way.

“Working with a non-profit specifically, I think a lot of people want to help tons of people and impact a lot of people,” Rochell said. “But it’s interesting to see how they (Street Bean) do it, because it’s smaller and they’re really getting involved in these peoples’ lives.

“They employ homeless youth in Seattle, so they’re getting involved in these individuals’ lives and really helping turn them around. Going forward, I would want to do something small like that where I’m working with the individual.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Isaac Rochell (90) celebrates following a big stop during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN