Junior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell brings a little bit of everything to the football field.
His “beast mode” abilities as one of the strongest players on the team is well documented. He’s Notre Dame’s starting “big end” that sets a barrier on the left edge of the Irish front, but he’s versatile enough to align at nose tackle in passing situations.
He’s also one of the most thoughtful, introspective, unflappable players on the Irish defense.
“He’s just a sound guy,” said captain/linebacker Jaylon Smith. “He’s someone who is reliable and productive. He makes sure everything is at ease.
“He’s much more chill. He definitely can cope in any type of situation or environment.”
The flexibility that Rochell brings to the field is a key component to what Notre Dame hopes to be a much-improved defensive front. When defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder begins applying his “mad scientist” approach to blitz schemes, it can expose an unprepared opponent – the Texas Longhorns the latest example – that will cave under the pressure.
“With VanGorder, you never know,” Rochell said. “We have install every day. Just when you think you’re done with the playbook, he adds something else. He says he does that because we’re Notre Dame and because we’re Notre Dame students. He says we’re smart enough to do this. He says, ‘You have an NFL defense.’ It’s enjoyable.”
No one’s focus is better than Rochell’s, the 6-foot-3 ½, 287-pounder from McDonough, Ga.
“You have to approach the game with a calmness,” said Rochell, who had a couple of tackles, including one for lost yardage, in Notre Dame’s dismantling of the Longhorns’ offensive line.
“Last year I got a little worked up at times. Sometimes the speed of the game and lack of knowledge of the package got to me. This year, it’s slowing down. I would consider myself a thinking man, approaching the game thinking. You have to find a happy medium.”
Rochell’s progress from last year to this year can be measured in a statistic seldom revealed to the public. In the 2014 opener against Rice – Notre Dame’s first game with VanGorder as coordinator – Rochell was “credited” with eight mental errors. Against Texas one year later? Zero mental errors.
“As a defense, we played well,” said Rochell of the Texas game. “Our mental errors and loafs were low.
“It’s good to look back at a game after you’ve played well, you win big and you correct your errors. But just like anything with VanGorder, he’s still going to rip you either way, and there’s a lot of stuff that we can improve upon. We left so many sacks on the field. We had a lot of QB pressures, but we’re still trying to get to the quarterback.”
VanGorder reminds his defenders to avoid being an “almost guy.” In other words, don’t be the one who “almost” made a play; be the guy who finishes off the quarterback.
“It’s cool to get a QB pressure, but that’s not a sack,” Rochell said. “A lot of that comes with intent to get a sack and even a tackle. VanGorder harps on not being an ‘almost guy.’ We don’t want to be ‘almost guys.’ We want to make plays and finish on the ball.”
As Rochell tries to become VanGorder’s vision of a complete player, he keeps an eye on the guys lining up next to him, which, in base defense, is either sophomore Daniel Cage or freshman Jerry Tillery.
Both earned praise from Brian Kelly in the aftermath of the Texas game. Even the hard-to-please VanGorder praised the nose tackles for their performance.
“They played with an immense amount of confidence,” said Rochell of Cage and Tillery. “Jerry came in, got a sack and didn’t bat an eye. He played like he had been there for a while, and even Coach VanGorder said he didn’t play like a freshman.
“I told him before the game, “Don’t waste time. If you’re going to play, play and play well.’ Don’t look back next year and think, ‘I wasted last year. I could have done so much better.’
“Cage is playing behind his pads. He’s bigger and stronger than anybody he goes against. He’s more powerful than them, and if he comes off the ball, he can be dangerous. When he comes off the ball with bad intentions, I don’t think he can be blocked. He’s starting to realize that he can’t be blocked.”
It’s a mindset that the Irish plan on taking to Charlottesville this weekend when they visit the Virginia Cavaliers.
“We have a confidence going into the season, and we’re gaining confidence with our depth,” Rochell said. “That’s something that hurt us last year, especially when Joe (Schmidt) got hurt.
“It’s the second year under VanGorder. We’re feeling more comfortable, and like Coach Kelly mentions all the time, our attitude and culture have changed tremendously.”
You can’t say the Irish defensive front isn’t aiming high.
“Pass rush always starts with intent,” Rochell said. “Am I going to get to the quarterback? It’s about looking at each other saying, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go get home.’ We also say let’s have a party in the backfield.
“It starts with the mentality. We’re going to get after it and we’re not going to be blocked. We’re working to be the best d-line in the country.”