If it was up to Isaac Rochell, he’d be starting for Clemson on Saturday night.
As a four-star prospect out of Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy outside Atlanta, Rochell looked hard at Dabo Swinney’s program during his junior year, including a game visit when Clemson hosted North Carolina. He connected with defensive ends coach Marion Hobby, whose personality pushed the Tigers out front for Rochell.
“Had I not visited (Notre Dame), I would have went there,” Rochell said. “Really the only reason I visited here is because my mom made me.”
Rochell trekked to Notre Dame during spring practice of his junior year and committed two months later. He went Irish five days after Jaylon Smith.
Unlike the five-star prospect Rochell followed, the defensive end’s career has been a steady build from bit player to regular to critical cog. Rochell is on track to lead the defensive line in snaps played for a second straight season. Injuries won’t have anything to do with it this time.
Rochell led the line with 141 real defensive snaps against Virginia and Georgia Tech. Sheldon Day was next at 129, followed by Jerry Tillery at 83.
Last year Rochell survived his snap count while losing 10-to-15 pounds in the process. Now thriving under the weight of this much work has meant preventative measures, ones Rochell takes almost daily.
Three days per week Rochell wraps classes at 12:20 p.m. and heads to the Gug for treatment. When he lifts on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 10 a.m., he usually gets to the football facility at least an hour early to work out bumps, bruises and soreness.
“I don’t think I ever would have come in last year and said, ‘I’m just going to do this even if I’m not that sore,’” Rochell said. “A lot of that just had to do with I didn’t understand the length of season. Now I understand … it’s easier to say I’m going to do this even if I’m not really banged up.”
Rochell leads the defensive line with 16 tackles but has yet to register a sack. His three quarterback hurries trail only Day’s outlandish nine, an area where Rochell wants to improve. He picked Day’s brain during the off-season and compared adding pass rush moves to a basketball forward refining his post game.
New defensive line coach Keith Gilmore has helped too, but the biggest influence has been Day. Both players move around in formations, working at tackle or end depending on the snap. Yet the Irish line has just four sacks to its credit all season.
“He's playing at a high level right now,” Day said. “He's becoming a complete player right now. Seeing him work different moves and seeing what he can and can't do and just challenging himself is probably the most impressive thing that he's done.”
On Saturday night Clemson will get a look at the player it almost got three years ago, one that would fit well into the Tigers front. Instead of going against Ronnie Stanley, Rochell will spend time working on freshman tackle Mitch Hyatt.
“Everything about (Clemson) was appealing. I knew they were going to end up being good. Now they’re really good,” Rochell said. “The biggest thing that kept me from going there is I didn’t get the feeling.
“I came up here and just forgot about every other school.”