Isaac Rochell went from bit player to full-time starter last season.
His snap count multiplied five times over. His rep experienced a similar enhancement, challenging Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones as Notre Dame’s best at the position. While injuries slowed one and sidelined the other, Rochell went wire-to-wire in a sophomore season that can be a template for Notre Dame’s freshman class.
When the Irish opened spring practice on Wednesday morning they did it with an all-freshman second team on the defensive line of Andrew Trumbetti, Jay Hayes, Daniel Cage and Grant Blankenship. When that group, along with Kolin Hill, Pete Mokwuah and Jhonny Williams, officially becomes sophomores, Notre Dame needs them to follow Rochell’s lead.
“I feel like they’ve already showed what you would want,” Rochell said. “Even in the weight room, they’re making themselves more a part of the team than they did last year. When you’re a freshman it’s really hard to feel you’re truly a part of the team. Especially when you’re not playing that much.
“Just getting involved more, even if it’s getting to the front of the line, getting more involved in drill work. I think it’s just been more a mentality thing.”
A year ago Rochell navigated that learning curve well enough that he played two positions in one Music City Bowl game plan. That knowledge base appears to be valued by new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, who Rochell likes as a change of voice from Mike Elston.
“I really like him. He’s kind of got the dad-like personality,” Rochell said. “That’s cool to have.”
After last season Rochell made a list of what he needed to improve and where the line needed a boost overall. When Gilmore arrived, Rochell wanted to share that self-improvement blueprint. The veteran assistant beat Rochell to it, calling the line together and asking them what they wanted to work on this spring.
“It brings more of a welcoming vibe when a coach says something like that,” Rochell said. “It was really cool that he did that.”
Rochell said targets for the line this spring include hand work and pass rush, two elements linked in Notre Dame’s weak pressures last season. The Irish averaged 2.0 sacks per game, which ranked 74th nationally. That was actually four sacks better than North Carolina, where Gilmore spent the past two seasons as defensive line coach.
Of Notre Dame’s 26 total sacks, 15 came from defensive linemen.
“The D-line has worked hard,” Rochell said. “Kind of developed a new mentality going forward.
“We didn’t have a good season last year, so coming into this season something has to change. Something’s gotta give. If you do the same thing, you’ll get the same results.”
Rochell wouldn’t get specific about what’s different this spring, although the position’s depth is in stark contrast to seasons prior under Brian Kelly. The rising junior believes Notre Dame’s youth is ready for a movement, the kind Rochell made himself last year.
“Because you’re a freshman there’s just a confidence thing,” Rochell said. “Sometimes you’re scared you’re gonna mess up, especially when you’ve got guys that have been there and they’re just really good. It’s just overcoming that confidence speed bump, whatever you want to call it. They’ve done a really good job of doing that.”