His Best Foot Forward

A veteran by comparison only, Notre Dame sophomore defensive lineman Isaac Rochell is ready for his starting debut.

Like most football players that make their living at the line of scrimmage, Irish defensive lineman Isaac Rochell can do without a lateral initial step. The technique preached in Notre Dame's oft-used 3-4 front of season's past, while effective (for one season, historically so), isn't natural for Rochell and others of his ilk that prefer to attack.

He'll get his chance for the latter in 2014.

“I am excited about Isaac Rochell’s development right now," said defensive line coach Mike Elston. "He is playing more confident. He is playing more physical. He is playing with better pad level. We are still continuing to work on the pass rush, which is going to be a critical place for him to grow in. But he is playing faster and more aggressive which in this scheme is needed."

Rochell believes he can play both faster and more aggressive because he's already had his date with uncertainty and hesitancy, two death knells for a college football player.

"I think it's a big deal getting out on the field, I think it's a big advantage," he said of playing 11 games last season as a true, not-yet-ready freshman. "A lot of guys that don't play and redshirt and are going to have big time roles (this year) they don't know what it's going to be like. I'm thankful that I know. The nerves of playing in front of 80,000 people. I've experienced it.

"The biggest thing is being confident with myself. Last year I was struggling with being a freshman and trying to know the defense. At the end of the year I still didn't have a full grasp. Now it's not like that. We've had many installs, I can play faster and more confident. I even think that goes into playing with strength because you know what you're doing so you can be more physical."

It's his strength that will be an early career calling card.

"He's so physically strong," said head coach Brian Kelly of his starting strong side defensive end. "I mean, he is as strong a player as we have."

"I think evolving, learning his position," Kelly added of Rochell this week. "He's somebody that's put on a lot of weight, stronger, more physical.  I think he's really adapting to what his skill set and his strength is. So evolving in the sense that, here is who you are, here is who you are turning into as a football player. Now use these strengths to your advantage. So I think capturing that knowledge in the defensive structure that we're running is really what's happened over the last, probably, three weeks."

Enough that Rochell won't only line up in his official position.

"You'll see him play all over the place. You'll see him play every position," said Elston. "Hopefully he can handle that work volume, I think he can. I don't know yet. We'll know after the first game, see how he handles it. I don't know what that number will be but hopefully it's up in that (40-50 snaps) area."

Rochell's work volume is higher than most first-time regulars because he prepared for it even when he had little chance of playing. When informed his head coach referred to him as "a beast," Rochell offered, "We practice the same way, whether you're third-string or first-string. It's a mindset I've always had. I'm glad he thinks that of me and it's my job to fulfill what he thinks and maintain that. I'm excited he called me that, it's cool, but at the end of the day you have to play well."

A preponderance of four-down fronts has Rochell excited as well. A powerful, explosive first step is needed, and he's ready to provide a consistent push.

"It's completely opposite," said Rochell of the approach compared to last season. "You can play faster and more physical. You can get there and be physical when you get there. That's the biggest thing."

It's not without its challenges.

"The biggest thing is just pad level, keeping our pads down," Rochell said of his camp focus. "It was something we struggled with so we've been in the chutes working to eradicate that. That's the main thing (Elston) stresses -- pad level."

Rochell will be backed by a true freshman at SDE, Grant Blankenship. Blankenship in turn will join true freshman Daniel Cage (NT), true freshman Andrew Trumbetti (WDE), and true freshman Jhonny Williams (sub package rush end) as regulars in a heavy rotation up front.

Rochell knows what that quartet and likely a handful more of his rookie teammates are about to encounter.

"The pre-game jitters, you don't have to deal with it as much (now) as you do as a freshman," he said. "You know what it's going to be like with your parents and friends, yelling your name. I think that's the biggest thing.

"I tell (Blankenship) all the time: calm down, get the first play over with, and then it's fine. It's like you're in front of one person, not (80,000). Obviously your mistakes hold more weight than they would in high school or something, but the biggest thing is just getting that first play over with."

Rochell has done that. It's the next 400-plus he'll experience in 2014 that are of greater importance


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories