Early Activation

Circumstances, not to mention strength gain, led defensive end Isaac Rochell into action as a true freshman up front.

Last spring, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco made it clear he'd prefer not to play freshmen from the outset. Not on his side of scrimmage, and not as part of his paradigm based on player development.

"I have no interest in heaping too much on young guys," Diaco said of yet-to-arrive freshmen last April. "We've been to this movie here. Three years ago with those defensive linemen and you know what, they were thrust into that role too early in our organization's opinion.

"They weren't ready for it mentally or physically," he continued. "If anything their development was hindered by that overwhelming amount of reps, so we'd like to avoid that if possible. And I mean as an organization. Coach (Brian) Kelly runs a developmental program here. We like to take our young players and give them a chance to develop."

Oh those best laid plans…

For the fourth consecutive season, a true freshman defensive end has earned consistent playing time in competitive situations: Kona Schwenke in 2010, Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt in 2011, Sheldon Day in 2012, and this fall, McDonough, GA resident Isaac Rochell, a player likely slated for a season of development prior to transfer and multiple injuries impacting the team's defensive front.

"I think it's cool," said Rochell of the early assimilation of 10 true freshmen this season. "Especially this summer, working out together we gelled. It was a common thing that, 'We're ready, we're going to work hard' so it's been cool to see some freshmen develop. When they go in, they're making plays."

Rochell made plays from the outset, leading the defensive line unit with three tackles vs. Temple. None have materialized since, though the 6'5" 280-pounder played a role in one of his team's six sacks last Saturday against Arizona State.

"It was fun being in there when it happened," Rochell said of a sack that was officially credited to the Irish team. "I think they counted it as a half-sack. I'll take what I can get."

At present, Rochell is getting playing time in relief of defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Kona Schwenke, the latter has move from backup nose guard in relief of injured sophomore Sheldon Day. The entire unit has been forced into a higher work volume this fall because of season-ending injuries to juniors Tony Springmann (knee) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder). Rochell's fellow incoming freshman Eddie Vanderdoes would doubtless have earned reps in a reserve role as well had he not defected during the summer to UCLA.

It took a lot to force Rochell into action, though he's not one to overanalyze a fortunate situation.

"You have to expect it and the coaches do a good job of letting you know about your playing time, it's not like they throw you in," said Rochell. "You know it's coming when you see someone go down. You need to be able to be ready, on your keys, and ready to go."

Asked when he first envisioned playing as a first-year competitor, Rochell offered, "It's hard when you're adjusting (to summer school) to even look at that part of the season. When I got here, my perspective on the whole thing was to just work out, get better, and it was such a day-by-day thing with classes, I never really thought about it.

"Then when the season came with training camp, it was the same thing. You just worry about the day. It's a grind. It's fun, but you have to focus so much on your job on and off the field that you don't really think (down the road)."

Gain, then Maintain

Listed at 265 pounds in early February, Rochell began to gain weight prior to his departure for South Bend. The rest came naturally -- or naturally for a football player at Notre Dame.

"At that point I was probably upwards of 268-269 pounds," said Rochell of his late-June arrival. "Then when you get here and they get you in the dining hall in the summer -- and the dining hall is great -- and they get you on their lifting program where you're constantly lifting, you gain weight. All the freshmen gained like five or 10 pounds right when they got here. It just happens."

The apparent greatness (it must have changed since the mid-90s) of the dining hall gave way to every athlete's favorite post-practice feature, Notre Dame's in-season training table.

"For the training table, I like it when they make pasta," Rochell said. "And they also make sandwiches that are always good."

Better than home-cooking he left in Georgia?

"Ooooh. No, I wouldn't say that," Rochell noted with a hint of caution. "I'm really enjoying (his first season) though. Every day we try to develop, so the concentration is solely to get better. I really enjoy it though, I love being up here."

While Rochell has the culinary aspect of his first season properly prioritized, there's also the added pressure gaining strength and maintaining weight as a three-month season marches on.

"The main thing is maintaining your strength while getting stronger. I don't think its a huge concern to really bulk up during the season," he said. "The focus is not to lose weight while maintaining strength."

The main focus though, is learning to become a college football player after a high school career spent shining on game day.

"The toughest part is putting together a whole week," Rochell said. "Saturday is one thing, but you also have to have three good practices. There's a lot that goes into it outside of just the game. Getting better, watching film, working out, practicing. It's a process to put the whole thing together."

A process Irish freshmen defensive linemen continue to embrace, regardless of best laid plans.


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