ND A-to-Z: Isaac Rochell

The Irish have one trusted commodity on the defensive line. Can Isaac Rochell help create a few more? The question facing Rochell is less about ability and more about if he can make the rest of the line better.

Isaac Rochell must do two things this season: find a unicorn and herd cats.

If the senior defensive end can do those, the Notre Dame defense might make up for the losses of Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day and KeiVarae Russell. So all Rochell needs to accomplish is find the program’s rumored pass rush and lead an eclectic meeting room of personalities along the defensive line.

Good luck.

Notre Dame’s pass rush has produced just 50 sacks under Brian VanGorder – the Irish have posted 30 sacks in a season just once (2012) under Brian Kelly – and must replace Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day. They produced 12 sacks last season. The entire defensive line returns just four, with nobody posting more than one last year.

As a point of comparison, Ohio State (83), Alabama (83), Clemson (93), USC (70), Stanford (80) and Michigan State (79) all crush Notre Dame in totals sacks the past two seasons. Interestingly, Florida State has just 49 sacks in this timespan.

“Pass rush is where the money’s made,” Rochell said. “It doesn’t matter where you are or at what level with what team. We’re definitely focusing on it. I think we’ll surprise people.”

That would be a start.

Next comes keeping Jarron Jones, Jay Hayes and Jerry Tillery on point, meaning the rest of Notre Dame’s starting defensive line. That’s a group of big personalities desperate for a voice like Day or Kapron Lewis-Moore to stitch it together. It’s not clear if Rochell has that based on Kelly’s feedback during spring ball.

“My expectation doesn’t change. We still really want to be great,” Rochell said. “A younger defense like the defense that we have really has to focus on developing guys into being reliable and doing their job. I think that will help out the explosive plays that really hurt us last year.”

Rochell is next in Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z series.

Best-Case Scenario

Rochell delivers on that improved pass rush he promised during spring practice and puts up at least a half-dozen sacks to lead the position. Is it too much to ask Rochell to pace the defensive line in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks? Not in the best-case scenario world where Rochell is not only Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman, he’s also Notre Dame’s best defensive player. Maybe Rochell won’t be as disruptive as Sheldon Day last season, but there’s no reason why the senior can’t anchor one side of the Irish line with a 75-tackle season to show for it. Rochell also must show a new level of leadership by being voted a captain, which means keeping Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery engaged all year. That’s another area where Notre Dame needs to replace Day in a big way. Rochell can deliver.

Worst-Case Scenario

Rochell takes a step forward this fall in terms of strength, but the fact he’s not a natural pass rusher becomes painfully obvious. If he’s only posted 3.5 sacks in three years, what are the chances he doubles that career mark just in this season? Pretty low, even though Notre Dame needs it. There’s a reason why Rochell led all returning defensive linemen with one sack last season. The Irish just aren’t very good in this department. Still, the worst-case scenario for Rochell is still being Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman. He’s a player whose ceiling might not be off the charts, but he’s got a high floor too. At a minimum, the Irish can bank on Rochell being a reliable defensive end who answers the bell every snap. Maybe he’s not a bona fide NFL prospect, but he’s got a lot he can bring to the table.

Career Comparison

Through three years the best comparison may be Grant Irons, although Notre Dame can’t afford that to continue any longer. From his freshman to junior years, Irons started 18 games, made 116 tackles, posted 6.0 TFL’s and 5.0 sacks. That’s close to Rochell’s 25 starts, 112 tackles, 15 TFL’s and 3.5 sacks. A shoulder injury ruined Irons’ senior year after being elected captain, although it came early enough in the season that Irons could return for a fifth year. Rochell would rather skip that part of this parallel. Irons was a bit taller than Rochell (6-foot-5 vs. 6-foot-3 ½) but the Georgia product is bigger (290 pounds vs. 275).

Development Vs. Recruiting Ranking

The rankings spread for Rochell out of Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy was incredibly narrow, separated from highest (Rivals at No. 124 overall) to lowest (Scout at No. 153 overall) by just 29 slots. All four services had Rochell as a solid four-star prospect who wasn’t quite a Top 10 defensive end but clearly in the Top 20. Basically, everybody was right on Rochell. The Irish caught a major break when they got him to campus the summer before his senior year, which let Notre Dame edge out Clemson. Rochell has had a classic four-star career, a multi-year starter, potential captain and probable NFL Draft pick. It’s hard to ask for much more.

Rochell At His Best

With just 3.5 sacks in three years, it’s hard to pick out a best moment, but one of those sacks did come against USC last year. Rochell also put up a season-high seven tackles at Clemson (in a monsoon). But for our money we’ll go with that vine-worthy moment against Stanford from two years ago when Rochell absolutely rocked first-round pick Andrus Peat straight back onto his butt. Yes, Rochell putting Peat on blast didn’t have much to do with the actual result of that play, but it showed what kind of strength the jumbo defensive end brings to the position. That moment is sure to show on Rochell’s draft highlights next spring.

Quote To Note

“I think Isaac Rochell is starting to become a little bit more assertive,” Brian Kelly before spring practice when asked about leadership

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