Rochell Enjoying the Ride

Sophomore defensive end Isaac Rochell wasn't supposed to start this season. Then again, a lot of things have changed for the Irish defense and its front seven en route to a 5-0 start.

After five games and five outstanding defensive efforts, the prevailing belief among Irish fans is that opposing offenses set to face first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's unit are in for an afternoon of discomfort and surprises.

Try being one of the players on that VanGorder unit.

"It's something every week," said sophomore Isaac Rochell of a particular tweak in last Saturday's blitz package. "It's why we always have to stay on our Ps and Qs and make sure we're in our playbook and always study, because you never know what VanGorder's going to do. I enjoy it."

Rochell was referencing a pair of snaps in which he and fellow defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, then Rochell and fellow DE Romeo Okwara, aligned as standup inside linebackers. Starting inside linebackers, Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, aligned as defensive ends. And everybody blitzed.

"That was fun. I've never done that before," said Rochell. "It was a completely different dynamic. We repped it during the week, it was weird, but it was cool.

"I enjoyed it because we knew, either me, or Romeo, or the (Schmidt) was going to be free. So it was fun."

It worked once (third-down stop), but not twice (third-down conversion). You might not see it again, or if you do, there'll be a variance. What you will see, is continued aggression, both from the man in charge of the defense and his troops.

"The aggressiveness he brings schematically, we want to bring that aggressiveness in our attitudes and coming off the ball," said Rochell of a defensive line that has produced 98 tackles and 17.5 of the team's 27.5 tackles for loss this fall.

Rochell brought that aggression on Stanford's second snap, one that made the rounds on Notre Dame's message boards as Rochell exploded into beast-mode on future NFL offensive tackle, Andrus Peat (Click here to view the play).

"It was cool, but at the end of the day there was still a lot of stuff in the game I needed to improve upon, so I couldn't even focus on that with all the improvements that needed to be made," said Rochell.

Wait, What?

First-down. Stanford with the ball at Notre Dame's 49-yard line. 11 seconds remaining and the Irish clinging to a 17-14 lead. The Cardinal needed at least 18 yards to get into career-best field goal range for kicker Jordan Williamson.

So of course, VanGorder released the hounds.

"That's just coach VanGorder's attitude," said Rochell. "But it was funny, typical VanGorder that we brought the house. It was cool. Makes it fun. The game's on the line, it brings a whole other dynamic to the game. And in terms of opponents scouting us, you never know. It makes it fun playing in the defense."

Lauded for his strength and thus ability to hold the point vs. opposing rushing attacks, Rochell has had his fair share of fun collapsing the pocket -- his six quarterback hurries is tied for the team lead with junior captain Sheldon Day. The pair has combined for just a half-sack (Rochell's) but their continued presence in opposing backfields has paved the way for others.

Rochell continues to work to eradicate his weaknesses (pass rush technique) but also his obvious strength.

"I can't get away from it. I've always worked really hard in the weight room," said Rochell when asked if he was "naturally" strong. "I came from a high school (Eagles Landing Christian Academy, McDonough, GA) where our weight training was very intense. We trained hard in-season as much as in the off-season. My whole football career I've always matched it (games) with intensity in the weight room. I train that way here, too."

He trains so that others -- from his mentor Day, to his defensive mates, to his coaches -- will count on him.

"For sure, you feel like you don't want to let him down," said Rochell of VanGorder. "He definitely gives that vibe to you, that you don't want to mess something up. It's the same with (defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston.

"I just think (VanGorder's) coaching style in general is he's a stern coach and definitely gets on you, but he's also a loving coach," Rochell continued. "He gives you props when props are due. He coaches in a way that makes you think, 'Okay, I'm not a bad player. I can do this.' It's a cool mix of a hard-nosed coach, but also one that loves his players."

Nothing Weak About Them

Four daily Irish websites. A handful of annual magazines. College football radio and television hosts. Me.

What do we all have in common?

A collection of football geniuses that dubbed Notre Dame's defensive line as the program's weakness heading into 2014.

It's instead emerged as the team's definitive strength, producing 18 of the team's 25 QB hurries, 8 of its 12 sacks, and served as the focal point of a defense limiting opponents to 2.9 yards per rush.

"There was just a question mark in people's minds, which was completely fair," said Rochell, aware of the pre-season prognostications gone awry. "We lost a lot of guys, we lost a coordinator (Bob Diaco). I think the question mark should shave been there no matter what. But we've always grinded, always worked hard, and worked to be the best defensive line we could possibly be.

"So (regardless of) that question mark, we still trained to be the best. The biggest thing was you don't think about it. We didn't think, 'Oh, people are questioning our abilities.' We worked like we would if we were supposed to be really good or really bad."

Credit that approach in part to the unit's -- or perhaps, the team's -- best player through five games.

"We work with the philosophy that the speed of the leader is the speed of the pack," said Rochell. "Sheldon always does a good job putting things in perspective.

"(Senior co-captain) Cam McDaniel is the same way. He gave a speech midway through camp that was basically, 'Hey, we need to be better. We need to step up. Work harder.'"

Hard enough to be in line for the inaugural college football playoff as the season approaches its midway point.


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