Brian VanGorder had a message for Isaac Rochell last fall.
The Irish defense was soft. Inexplicably, that verbal salvo was directed in part at the defensive end, who then spilled himself into the lineup during November while injuries felled teammates. Rochell ultimately led the line in snaps played by a wide margin, never tapping out despite the staff’s decision to red line him out of necessity.
“Being a school like Notre Dame, we kind of have a rap where a lot of times people take us as being kind of soft,” Rochell said. “‘They’re smart,’ whatever. ‘They're not really football players.’ So he brought that to our attention and challenged us in that way.”
Maybe some players needed that message. Rochell did not.
The Irish Illustrated A-to-Z series continues with the junior defensive end, who has developed into one of the roster’s most indispensable players.
After a strong sophomore season, Rochell takes another step forward in his game, growing into Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman and giving the Irish three NFL talents in the starting lineup. Rochell has already proven to be the squad’s most reliable presence on the line, even if he’s not as flashy as Sheldon Day or Jarron Jones. His 10 quarterback hurries led the Irish last season. His 7.5 tackles for loss trailed only Jaylon Smith. And in terms of personality, Rochell is a steady head within a volatile meeting room. Rochell’s junior season finishes with double-digit tackles for loss and a potential NFL Draft decision.
Barring injury, there seems to be no chance Rochell backslides after starting all 13 games last season. His durability ranks among his biggest assets, and that’s a compliment. The worst case for Rochell is simply that his game doesn’t take a noticeable step forward and he doesn’t develop a couple more pass rush moves. But even if Rochell is the exact same player this fall as last season, that’s still a solid strong-side defensive end. Maybe Rochell doesn’t have a first-round pick ceiling, but he owns a floor higher than anybody else on Notre Dame’s defensive line.
Rochell’s first two seasons haven’t hit the heights of Anthony Weaver or Stephon Tuitt, but it’s on track with another No. 90 in Ethan Johnson. Rochell has started 13 games through two seasons and played in 24 games, totaling 39 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. After his sophomore year, Johnson had started 15 games and appeared in 25, posting 49 tackles and 11.5 for loss. Johnson’s game never quite found another gear from there as a serious ankle injury dogged him as an upperclassman as Tuitt and Aaron Lynch entered the program.
Rochell was a consensus four-star prospect and his career track has backed up that prep analysis. Scout was the lowest on Rochell of the four services, slotting him at No. 153 overall and No. 17 among defensive ends. ESPN was next at No. 139 overall and No. 13 at his position. Rivals was the highest on Rochell at No. 124 overall, with 247 slotting him at No. 127. Two years into Rochell’s college career, it’s hard to argue with any of those assessments with the Georgia product on track to be a three-year starter for the Irish. For a prospect to justify a four-star ranking he needs to start multiple seasons, a bar Rochell will clear with ease.
The stats say Northwestern was Rochell’s best game with nine tackles in that gut punch loss. And while it might sound strange, any performance in November could be considered Rochell’s best work simply because he poured himself onto the field while multiple teammates sat with injuries. Yes, the Irish defense collapsed in November. But Rochell didn’t. There was also that launching of first round pick Andrus Peat against Stanford, although Rochell actually didn’t make a tackle in that game. But let’s still mention it. In fact, here’s the clip.
“We've had a really good offseason. In these winter workouts, the D-line has really worked hard and kind of developed a new mentality. That's the biggest part and that's going to help going forward." – Rochell during spring practice