It was considered at the time a fairly devastating blow to the Notre Dame 2014 defense.
Ishaq Williams, the projected starter at the big end position, would be lost indefinitely due to an academic dishonesty charge, which ultimately would extend for the balance of the season and put an end to his collegiate career.
Stepping into the starting lineup would be 6-foot-3 ½, 287-pound sophomore Isaac Rochell with no career starts and a mere 10 tackles to his name.
How would the Irish survive?
Although neither the 2014 nor the 2015 Notre Dame defenses were of the vaunted variety, Rochell – the McDonough, Ga. product out of Eagle’s Landing Christian – certainly was a stabilizing force the last 26 games as Notre Dame’s starting left end/interior line contributor.
Strong by nature and a real physical impediment for Brian VanGorder’s first two defenses at Notre Dame, Rochell was one of the least of the Irish worries as the defense allowed 30 points per game over the last 20.
Rochell holds the point of attack like a champ, particularly for a player whose role as a backup heading into ’14 pre-season camp was undetermined. After finishing with 39 tackles as a true sophomore, Rochell upped that total to 63 this past season, which was good for an impressive fifth on the ’15 defense.
He matched his 7 ½ tackles for loss from the previous year, but ironically, despite clearly presenting a more challenging pass rush effort, saw his sack total drop from 2 ½ to 1.
Still, Rochell more than held his own in the trenches, usually pushing the point of attack into the laps of the opposing offensive line.
“Just the overall development of my confidence,” said Rochell, summarizing the area of greatest improvement from 2014 to 2015.
“(In 2014), I was a little tentative. Then (in 2015), I feel like I contributed more. Obviously I had more tackles and things like that. (But) the biggest thing has just been from a confidence standpoint, coming in and feeling like I can be a major contributor.”
While Rochell isn’t a likely prospect to suddenly emerge as an eight-sack guy like Romeo Okwara did in ’15, he does have aspirations to be even more impactful in ’16.
“I think I’ve improved as a pass rusher, but just like anything, you’ve got to keep working on it,” Rochell said. “The thing I need to work on is finishing at the quarterback. I get there, but I’ve got to finish.”
Rochell credits defensive line coach Keith Gilmore for providing him with the tools to improve his game as well as a demeanor that brings out the best in Notre Dame’s defensive line, which will be without Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara in ’16.
“I just like the spirit that (Gilmore) has,” Rochell said. “Just his personality really goes well with our defensive line.”
With Rochell’s decision to return for his senior season comes a coinciding piece to the puzzle. Notre Dame lost captains Day, Nick Martin, Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith following the Fiesta Bowl – the first three to an expiration of eligibility and the fourth due to otherworldly, first-round talent.
There is no returning senior a more likely candidate for captainship in 2016 – when you combine maturity, leadership and football accomplishments – than Rochell.
“I’m excited to be here,” said Rochell of Notre Dame. “I love the University. I really do love being here, and then obviously my opportunity for the future is going to be better if I come back. Those are the biggest things that make it so easy.”
Rochell’s personality plays a positive role for the Irish as well. Now, without Day – the defense’s leader along with Smith – Rochell’s influence will be even greater and stretch beyond the defensive line.
“The biggest thing is our team has to come together,” said Rochell of upcoming Notre Dame Team 128. “We lose a lot of guys, so we’ll have to come together and find our identity.
“(In ’15), it was easy to know our identity because we pretty much had the same, exact team (as 2014). You could build on a culture already established. So while there’s already a culture, each team has its own identity. We have to find our identity and build on that.”
For Notre Dame in 2016, there is not a more stable, secure cornerstone upon which to build than Isaac Rochell.