Isaac Rochell got asked a lot about Brian VanGorder this weekend. The former Irish defensive lineman would have rather spent his NFL Combine interviews talking about J.J. Watt.
Because as much as Notre Dame’s train wreck of last season dominated Rochell’s meetings in Indianapolis, the last word on his draft position will more likely be offered by a pass rush he didn’t unleash often the past four years. In 49 career college games, Rochell finished with just 4.5 career sacks.
That won’t turn many NFL heads, at least not toward the 6-foot-4, 280-pound athlete, who was one of just three Irish players at the combine alongside Jarron Jones and DeShone Kizer.
“The game is becoming such a passing oriented game. In the NFL, teams are passing 60-70 percent of the game,” Rochell said. “So something I will continue to work on is just developing my pass rush. You have to be an elite pass rusher to play this game. And if you want to stay in the game you have to continue to do that.”
“So I am just watching elite pass rushers and unique individuals like J.J. Watt, guys who have been successful in pass rush because he does the little things right and plays with tremendous effort.”
Rochell finished in the middle of the pack in most of his combine tests, which was an improvement over Jones and Kizer. The former Irish nose guard and quarterback were both disappointments relative to their competition. Rochell, meanwhile, held his own.
Rochell’s 25 bench reps tied for 13th among the 49 defensive linemen who tested. Jones finished with 22 reps, which slotted 30th. In the 40-yard dash, Rochell tied for 30th with a 4.89 while Jones ranked 49th of 51 participants with a 5.33. On the vertical jump, Rochell tied for 19th with a 31.5-inch mark. Jones finished dead last at 20.5 inches, four inches off the next closest competition.
What Rochell offers that few other prospects can is the versatility to start at defensive end and defensive tackle with experience playing in both a 4-3 and 3-4 scheme. That’s something Rochell was asked about plenty this weekend and he was happy to answer.
“Ultimately I think I have the skill set and the ability, it’s just a matter of putting it all together,” Rochell said. “Because I’m a tweener, teams want to hear what I think I am. I think that’s one of my biggest strengths, versatility.”
Rochell said teams project him as a defensive end in a 3-4 system but more of an interior prospect in the 4-3, perhaps depending on down and distance. He did all that in South Bend. Playing at Notre Dame might be another asset in its own right.
Even with that 4-8 season hanging over Notre Dame, Rochell still practiced with Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara the previous three years. He also worked against Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin in practices. Basically, Rochell got some NFL experience as a college player.
“I was lucky enough I had some great players like Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara to kind of look up to and learn from,” Rochell said. “At the end of my sophomore season it was kind of a turning point mentally. I had started for a year, I was way more comfortable in the position, and I was able to play better.”
Ultimately, Rochell’s senior season was a disaster in wins and losses, although he made the point multiple times during his media session and to NFL teams that he wouldn’t trade the relationships he built in South Bend.
“My message is simple. I didn’t enjoy being 4-8. It was extremely disappointing,” Rochell said. “I think we had an identity issue. We lost a lot of really good players. At this time last year we had 8-9 guys (at the combine). I personally think it takes a unique person and a unique mentality to play football at Notre Dame. You have to juggle school and football. Not everybody can do that.”