Brian Kelly caught Isaac Rochell off guard.
The day before Notre Dame’s first practice, the Irish head coach revealed Rochell had fought back issues the past couple years that had limited his training. Kelly claimed Rochell had worn down the past two seasons and that wouldn’t be the case this fall after his best summer in South Bend.
Yet this was the same Rochell who logged 70-plus snaps in games. So was conditioning the issue or was it the inability of Notre Dame’s staff to rotate along the defensive front?
“I was a little confused myself,” Rochell laughed. “But I definitely feel great. I feel like the volume, even in practice, has been good because you never know in games. Two years ago I played 90 plays. I think that’s what he’s talking about, overall conditioning.”
Regardless of what Kelly meant, Notre Dame does need to rotate more, even without Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara to eat snaps.
Actually doing it may require creative thinking, with the conditioning of Jarron Jones in question, Daniel Cage coming off a hamstring injury and Jay Hayes out for a week with a high ankle sprain. Jerry Tillery remains a fit option on the interior to pair with Rochell on the outside. But limiting snaps for a thin line might require playing fewer defensive linemen.
The Irish have installed some speed packages this off-season that could put Daelin Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti – both weak side ends – on the field at the same time. Even linebacker James Onwualu said he will play rush end in some situations, coming out of a two-point stance.
If Daelin Hayes, Trumbetti and Onwualu are on the field at the same time, logically that means the combination of Tillery, Cage, Rochell and Jones are sitting. Maybe all four of them, although Rochell likely moves to defensive tackle in the speed look.
“That’s how you’re stretching the games and stretching the reps for some of those big guys inside,” Kelly said.
One player who could help Rochell specifically is Jonathan Bonner, the junior who’s backing up the senior at strong side end. Bonner took a red-shirt as a freshman, underwent foot surgery last spring and changed positions last fall. After bouncing between tackle and end, he’s settled on the outside.
Rochell singled out Bonner as the player who’s improved most since spring ball.
“There’s the ups and downs of camp because it’s so tough, but just in general he’s done a great job,” Rochell said. “He’s a much better player this year than he was last year. I think coaches and players are more confident with him going in the game.”
If Bonner really is green lit to rotate with Rochell it should show against Texas. Bonner logged fewer than 100 snaps all last season, and most of those came in blowout wins. When games tightened, Bonner sat. Now it appears a player Kelly has hyped as one of the roster’s best athletes may be ready to show it.
“He’s got to let it go. I mean, he’s coming,” Kelly said. “Plays a little hesitant at times but when he let’s it go, he’s a really good athlete. But we’re seeing some progress with Jonathan every day and I think we’ll continue to see that.”
If Notre Dame opens with an eight-man rotation on the defensive line it would be an advance over last season when the Irish basically played five. Rochell, Day and Okwara rarely came off the field while Cage and Tillery had an honest job share. Trumbetti was the distant sixth until injuries hit in November, forcing him into the lineup fulltime.
Trumbetti got just 16 snaps at Virginia and 11 at Clemson. He was a DNP against Georgia Tech and logged just five snaps against Navy. He logged a combined 129 against Boston College and Wake Forest.
In review, if Jay Hayes can return to full health, if Trumbetti can get over his crisis of confidence, if Daelin Hayes can be ready for opening night, if the conditioning of Cage and Jones isn’t a story, if Rochell’s off-season really was his best and if Tillery really has committed to football, Notre Dame can have that line depth the staff craves.
At least that’s the hope.