For a defender whose head coach offered "isn't a guy that's going to pressure the quarterback," Isaac Rochell sure did pressure the quarterback a lot last season.
More than anyone else on the squad, in fact, with 10 official QB Hurries to his credit (my film review notes unofficially set the total at 15).
Kelly wasn't intentionally short-changing his breakout sophomore, it's admittedly not Rochell's chief job or best skill. Stuffing the run is -- 24.5 *stuffs, second only to Jaylon Smith's 28 -- and Rochell will do so this spring and likely next fall from multiple positions along the Irish defensive front.
"I kind of like the middle," said Rochell following a start at nose tackle in the Music City Bowl. "I'm not going to say there's less responsibility. You're in there, you can bang. A lot of it is you can rely on your natural ability."
(*Our "stuffs" statistic is explained in the column, Controlling Scrimmage.)
That ability puts him ahead of a still-recovering Jarron Jones (late-November foot surgery) in the summer and early-August pecking order. Can Jones, a player in need of "lower body strength" per the staff, improve enough despite a lower-body injury to hold the point by early September when the Longhorns come calling from Texas?
"What he's learning to work with is his lower body," said Kelly of Jones after his nose tackle's season-ending injury last November. "His explosiveness has to come as a long lever guy it's got to come from his lower body. So one of the fallbacks here is that we're going to lose him in the weight room for a little bit. And one of the areas that he had to really focus in on was lower body strength.
"(Strength & Conditioning) Coach (Paul) Longo will have to do an extraordinary job of really working around that injury to continue to build his lower body strength. He's done a really good job with his hands. We gotta get his lower body to meet what he's done with his hands. He can push anybody back. We haven't gotten the explosiveness from his lower body yet. So that's going to be the challenge now in the offseason."
Rochell is an invaluable contingency plan, but whether his best position is nose tackle, defensive end, or other, it's clear that the team's best alignment is a healthy Rochell at one end with Jones, and Sheldon Day inside, and the pairing of Romeo Okwara/Andrew Trumbetti opposite Rochell.
It's heavy and varied rotation work -- third-down, special situations, etc. -- in which Rochell could start at DE but also aid the defensive interior even if Jones is 100 percent healthy heading into August or September.
"I enjoyed it," said Jones of his one game and one month of work at nose tackle leading up to the Music City Bowl. "It was a super fun game so it was cool. My weight was a lot lower than it should have been (for the position) but I knew that if I played fast and stayed low, it would be fine."
Rochell will likely spend the spring inside with sophomore Daniel Cage as the No. 2 nose tackle. The session is an ideal time to evaluate what the staff can do with a player possessing Rochell's versatility. Should he be forced to start the entire season at nose tackle, the defense, at that singular position, would be no worse for the wear.
But the defense is doubtless better with both of its biggest interior defenders in the fold.
"He made the strides that we've hoped," said Kelly of Jones when his season came to a close prior to a matchup with USC last fall. "He didn't do it consistently. (Against) Florida State he was a beast. And then he was missing by and large against Northwestern.
"So we gotta see that week in and week out. But he's got the capability to be a dominating player."
As does Rochell. Without a qualifier attached.
CONSISTENTLY TOP TEN
Each week, combining weekly film reviews, game notes, and common sense, we identified Notre Dame's Top 10 players (combined Off/Def/ST) last season, both in terms of the previous contest and an overall season ranking.
In his first season as a stater -- and likely thrust into that role because of the suspension of Ishaq Williams -- Isaac Rochell's name was a near-weekly presence on the list:
-- Top 10 Outings: Syracuse, North Carolina, Northwestern (Def. MVP), Louisville, LSU
-- Honorable Mentions: Michigan, Purdue, Stanford, Florida State
-- End-Season Ranking: No. 7 (Day, Smith, Fuller, Luke, Schmidt, Folston, Rochell, Stanley, Golson, Riggs)
-- (My) Ranking Entering Spring 2015: No. 5 (Smith, Stanley, Day, Fuller, Rochell)