Unsung Rochell a building block for 2015-16

It was a bit of a surprise that Rochell didn’t move inside following the knee injury to Day. When Day returned for the bowl game and Rochell was moved inside to replace banged up Jarron Jones, the Irish front became formidable enough to take on LSU’s physical offensive line.

Isaac Rochell doesn’t fit the stereotype of a college defensive end. His pass-rush skills are limited. He’s a banger with a non-stop motor, but sacks usually come as a result of Brian VanGorder’s overloaded blitz package, not a signature pass-rush move.

Isaac Rochell doesn’t fit the stereotype of a college nose tackle, which is the position he played in Notre Dame’s 31-28 victory over LSU in last week’s Music City Bowl. At less than 290 pounds, he’s about 30 pounds lighter than Jarron Jones, who manned the spot throughout most of the 2014 regular season before suffering a season-ending foot injury in the 11th game against Louisville.

So what is Isaac Rochell? Who is Isaac Rochell?

“(He’s) one of the more powerful players that I’ve coached, and he’s only going to get better,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “He’s extremely powerful.”

And versatile, reliable, resilient, coachable, and committed to the cause, which meant after starting 12 games at strongside end for the Irish, Rochell didn’t seem to bat an eye when it was suggested he not only move inside to take on LSU’s powerful offensive line interior, but play the one-technique role previously belonging to Jones.

“I enjoyed it. It was a super fun game,” said Rochell of his move inside against the Tigers. “A lot of times ends are a lot faster and skinnier. Inside guys are a lot bigger, which you don’t realize until you’re in there.

“It was weird because we were playing a really good SEC team and I’m playing nose guard. My weight was a lot lower than it should have been. I just knew if I played fast and played low, I’d be fine.”

The Irish were gashed for 285 yards rushing with LSU’s rampaging freshman – Leonard Fournette – accounting for 143 yards on the ground, including an 89-yard third-quarter touchdown scamper.

But with a healthy Sheldon Day back from a knee injury and the powerful Rochell inside, Notre Dame was much more capable of holding the point of attack than it was in November when injuries took their toll, and Navy, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC ran roughshod over its depleted defensive front.

“He does a lot of things well,” said Day of Rochell – a McDonough, Ga., product – during the 2014 regular season. “Once he gets his hands on you, he’s a strong kid. We call it Georgia strong.”

It was a bit surprising when Day was sidelined against Northwestern and Jones was sent to the inactive list against Louisville that Rochell wasn’t moved inside, particularly against USC in the regular-season finale.

The 30 days of preparation for LSU helped with the transition. Notre Dame solidified its interior – making the constant shuffle at the tackle and nose positions throughout November unnecessary against LSU – and gave the Irish a solid foundation upon which to construct a winning game plan.

“I kind of like the middle just because -- I’m not going to say there’s less responsibility -- but you can’t mess up as much,” Rochell said. “You can bang and a lot of it is just relying on your natural ability.”

The fact that Rochell was a no-doubt-about-it starter from Rice through LSU required a propitious turn of events. There didn’t appear to be any serious consideration to starting Rochell over 6-foot-6, 275-pound senior Ishaq Williams – who had moved from outside linebacker to end to fit VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme – when fall camp opened in August.

Rochell – who played a backup role as a true freshman in 2013 – looked like the swingman for both defensive end spots. Not a true pass-rushing end, but someone who could hold the point of attack and hold his own behind Williams and junior Romeo Okwara, who was projected to start on the other side of the line.

But Williams never made it to the first game of the season, losing the year, along with four others, due to suspension as a result of academic improprieties. While many fretted the loss of Williams’ potential – he had underachieved during his first three years in an Irish uniform, but was a former five-star recruit – few paid much attention to the impact of Rochell’s move into the starting lineup.

His final numbers from the ’14 season weren’t particularly flashy. He finished with 39 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Good, solid numbers, but nothing that screams star. His 10 quarterback hurries paced the squad, but that was more a result of the other defensive end spot being shared by Okwara and freshman Andrew Trumbetti.

The fact is Notre Dame is a better defense when Isaac Rochell is on the field, regardless whether it’s defensive end, nose tackle or even three-technique, which might be his best position, but will be manned by Day at least for another season.

“I’d be cool with whatever,” said Rochell, showing his typical team-first mentality. “I’m not like super picky. I like the inside.”

Inside or out, the Irish defensive line is better with Rochell on it, regardless which spots he mans.

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