Through a captain's eyes: Isaac Rochell defies doomsday forecasts for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In a steady downpour late Wednesday afternoon, staged outside instead of the comforts inside of the Loftus Center, the whooping and shouting and cavorting was so raucous, it could have been mistaken for the piped-in crowd noise used to prep for road games.

Instead, this is what 2-4 sounds like on Notre Dame’s campus, before a home game with expectation-bursting twin Stanford (3-2). At least in this small window of time behind a locked gate at the LaBar Practice Complex.

Defiant. Unfiltered. And — for the time being anyway — united.

“We were just excited in general,” senior captain and defensive end Isaac Rochell said after practice, with an eye toward Saturday night’s Notre Dame Stadium matchup between two preseason top 10-ranked teams.

“And there’s been tons of effort, tons of enthusiasm, tons of excitement at practice lately. And it’s super exciting to play with guys who want to do that. Especially as a captain, knowing that the guys you’re playing with are going to fight.”

Whether that translates into wins, into a sustainable momentum shift for the program and its suddenly castigated head coach, Brian Kelly, will start to be answered Saturday night against a Stanford team that has lost its offensive hutzpah the past couple of weeks but still stops the run and gets after quarterbacks with unflappable proficiency.

Rochell has to be unflappable, too.

He’s one of four ND captains whose jobs got exponentially more difficult when Notre Dame’s defense stumbled so badly out of the gate, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was purged after game 4 and subsequently Kelly became the new target of fan frustration as well as for national gaping/speculation.

“It’s obviously challenging,” said Rochell, ND’s active career leader in both tackles (141) and tackles for loss (20). “You’ve got to keep guys going. If you’re undefeated or in our predicament, the job doesn’t change. So my challenge is just to keep guys motivated and keep guys moving forward.”

For Rochell, it starts with turning off Twitter and avoiding ESPN. That doesn’t mean claims of Kelly unfairly lighting up his players on the sidelines during the games and in press conferences after them hasn’t penetrated the bubble.

“My take is I trust our coaches, and that includes coach Kelly,” Rochell said. “And I love our coaches, and they’ve been nothing but great to all of us. And I know that they all have the same goal we have and we’re fighting the same fight. So ultimately I love and trust them.”

Rochell’s biggest fan remains his father, Steve, a semi truck driver who creatively schedules deliveries on weekends near where Isaac happens to be playing on a given Saturday. He did the same for Isaac’s older brother Matt, a three-year starter at Air Force who exhausted his college eligibility last season.

Now he doesn’t have to alternate.

The trips start in McDonough, Ga., the Rochells’ hometown. That’s 700 miles from South Bend and almost 1,900 to Glendale, Ariz., where the Irish played Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl last Jan. 1.

"It’s cool, and it’s quintessential blue collar America,” Isaac said, “just driving a truck to go see games. So I’m proud that he’s my dad and I’m proud that he’s proud of us.”

The two don’t talk football, though, almost ever. Steve figures his son is getting peppered enough in media sessions and while going to class about the losing and about new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson.

On Hudson, Isaac Rochell said he likes his coaching style, which includes playing music and videos in meetings.

“He played a sack tape today,” Rochell said. “As the guys were sacking the quarterback, there were random inspirational quotes at the bottom. Just stuff like that. It’s really energizing.

“I think (this defense) can be great. I think we’re heading in the right direction, but ultimately it starts with practice. You heard us out there getting excited. I think if we practice well and do what we need to in practice, we’ll play well.”

Even in the rain.

“We were out there making jokes about it, that this is nothing compared to what we just dealt with,” said Rochell, referencing ND’s 10-3 loss at N.C. State Saturday, played in deplorable field conditions and in the periphery of Hurricane Matthew.

"You’ve got to love when it’s raining. Rain just makes it fun.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Isaac Rochell (90), here battling Michigan State’s Kodi Kieler (79) on Sept. 17 at Notre Dame Stadium, has tried to be a positive influence during the team's 2-4 start. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)