Isaac Rochell has had two years to learn how to respond to the high praise Brian Kelly has bestowed upon him.
It was in August of 2014 – shortly after projected starting left defensive end Ishaq Williams was one of five players suspended for academic improprieties – that Kelly first referred to the unyielding Rochell as a beast.
Kelly was at it again late last week.
“Isaac Rochell is a beast,” Kelly said. “If he continues to play at this level, he’s virtually unblockable in one-on-one situations.
“Our guys have a very tough time blocking him. He’s faster, stronger, he’s an outstanding player.”
“VERY strong,” echoes Notre Dame right offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey of Rochell, with whom he frequently butts heads with on the practice field.
Rochell – the 6-foot-3 ½, 287-pound junior defensive end – acquired his “country strength” from growing up on Steve and Gina Rochell’s farm in McDonough, Ga. But he’s heard the question so many times now that Kelly has found his go-to way to describe him that Rochell brushes off the questions like a stray raindrop.
“It’s nice,” says Rochell when asked about Kelly’s comment. “It’s really cool,” he adds later.
The humble Rochell is captain material at Notre Dame, but he’s not one to trumpet his assets. He just wants to be part of a defensive line that makes vast improvement from the 2014 season when the Irish allowed 4.2 yards per carry and managed just 26 sacks while ranking 73rd in total defense
“I never thought we struggled that much with the run, but I feel like pass rush was a place where we struggled, and we focused on that all off-season and here in camp,” said Rochell, who tied for second on the team in tackles for loss with 7.5 while pacing the defense in quarterback pressures with 10.
It’s Year Two of the Brian VanGorder approach, which is attacking up front with a four-man front and an aggressive, one-gap approach. Year One came on the heels of Bob Diaco’s three-man front where absorbing blows and key-stepping to set up the linebackers for the kill was the preferred approach.
The second time through can only benefit Rochell and his linemates.
“The mentality of the d-line has completely changed this year,” Rochell said. “We’re really trying to be more aggressive and really take over and change the game. Coach VanGorder always says, ‘Change the game,’ and it starts with the d-line.”
Tying in with VanGorder’s philosophy was the arrival in the spring of defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, a veteran of the college game whose background is tied to Kelly’s at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
The style of play now matches the background of the position coach whereas former Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston – who has bumped back a rung to coach the linebackers – taught the game from Diaco’s preferred style of play.
“We’ve been working on our get-offs, really focusing on our first step,” Rochell said. “Obviously with Gilmore, he’s got us doing a lot of hand-combative stuff in the pass rush. It’s really been productive. He exposes you to different moves and different things, and he helps you find what you would be best at in a pass rush.
“I feel like the whole d-line has gotten significantly better in their pass rush. I don’t think it’s one individual person. It’s just becoming comfortable with it. I don’t think last year we were as comfortable coming off the ball with moves and stuff.”
Rochell’s strength and ability to set the left edge of the Irish defense was critical in ’14 when after five games against inferior offenses, the heavy-duty attacks started rolling in, which coincided with several injuries that a rebuilding defense could not absorb and still play effectively.
Even with the significant loss of Jarron Jones to a season-ending knee injury late last week, Notre Dame’s defensive line is vastly more experienced than it was a year ago, and that’s due in large part to the extensive action Rochell and others received, and VanGorder obsessing with the details.
“With VanGorder, you don’t ever get comfortable (complacent),” Rochell said. “It’s still a practice-by-practice, game-by-game mentality. You can have the best practice you’ve ever had and you’re still going to go in and he’s going to grill you either way. You never know with VanGorder. He throws curveballs all the time.
“But it’s good. It keeps you moving forward and in a place where you’re always self-evaluating. He’s an attention-to-detail guy. He’s not going to let the little things go.”
Where the comfort level kicks in is with the familiarity with the system and the ability now to anticipate what direction VanGorder might be leaning.
“Two years with the same defense, you start to understand concepts more, and then we can kind of get a feel for what’s going on and what he might call,” said Rochell of VanGorder. “From a conceptual standpoint, it makes more sense, and we’re really starting to understand everything.
“The whole d-line is a lot more comfortable because it’s kind of the same guys. A lot of second-year starter guys are coming back – me, Romeo (Okwara), Sheldon (Day) – and for all of us coming back, you feel way more comfortable. You know the length of the season, you know what all that feels like.”
Rochell also provides Notre Dame’s defensive front with some uncommon versatility. When injuries struck late last year, Rochell moved inside for the Music City Bowl against LSU. Look for Rochell to do the same in certain passing situations as he teams up inside with Day.
“I feel really comfortable inside and I think the coaches do a good job of finding a player’s best fit when it comes to third down,” Rochell said.
Ask Isaac Rochell anything and he’ll give you an intelligent, well-thought response. The beast reference, however, is one that he deflects aside like an overmatched offensive tackle.
“The focus right now is to get everybody moving forward and see where that takes us,” Rochell said. “Everybody will be a beast then.”