When Brian Kelly addressed the media on Friday to kick off Notre Dame’s 2016 fall camp, quarterbacks, freshmen, and the recent suspension of Alize Jones were obviously hot topics. One of the more interesting stories to come out of Kelly’s first fall presser, however, was the revelation that senior Isaac Rochell had been limited physically the last few years despite rarely coming off the field.
Wait a minute. What?
Notre Dame has suffered a litany of injuries the last two seasons. So many in fact that Brian Kelly also revealed on Friday that Notre Dame has invested heavily into sports science across all sports to help with injury prevention. Of all those injuries though, Isaac Rochell’s name wasn’t on the injury list much if ever. In fact, over the last two seasons, Rochell has started 25 out of 26 games for the Irish while playing in them 26 (UMass ’15 is the only game he is not credited with starting).
In addition to playing in all 26 games the past two seasons, his production has increased each season improving from 39 tackles to 63 between 2014 and 2015.
Isaac Rochell’s Career Stats
That production, however, came while Rochell struggled through back issues that limited what he was able to do in the weight room. “He’s had some back issues since he’s been here,” Kelly revealed on Friday. ” He’s physically been able to do everything. This is the first time in two years he’s been able to squat heavy, do all the leg lifts, do all the things necessary to be explosive.”
That wasn’t the case in years past. “He had a tendency to drop body weight and maybe get a little bit worn down during the season. He looks really good right now.”
This off-season, however, Rochell hasn’t been limited and as a result he is in the terrific shape. “He’s been able to physically do all of the things we’ve wanted him in this off-season. A little bit like Sheldon Day he’s made the most gains since he’s been here physically.”
The parallel to Day is interesting and very intriguing given the massive jump in production we saw from Day during his senior season. Like Rochell, Day played sparingly as a freshman before becoming a full-time starter as a sophomore and junior. Heading into his senior season, Day’s highest single season TFL total was 7.5 – identical the total Rochell racked up each of the last two seasons. Finally 100% healthy as a senior, Day saw his TFL total jump all the way up to 15.5.
If Rochell is able to replicate Day’s senior season bump in production, the Irish defensive line will be in great shape. Additionally, Day’s sack total of 4 in 2015 was greater than his career total of 3.5. Rochell heads into the 2016 season with 3.5 career sacks as well.
Replicating Day’s performance on the field isn’t the only place the staff wants to see Rochell fill in for Day. “We’ve asked him to be a leader for us,” Kelly said. “He’s picked up from where Sheldon Day left off in terms of taking over the defensive line room. Outstanding job there of mentoring the group – the young guys. There’s a lot of young guys in that group.”
Kelly seems confident that Rochell will be able to fill Day’s void both on and off the field. “I see him being a good leader for us and then having the strength to maintain that throughout the year.”
Considering Rochell was able to throw around Stanford’s Andrus Peat like a rag doll back in October of 2014, that seems like a reasonable expectation now that Rochell is finally fully healthy. Reminder: Peat was drafted #13 overall in the NFL Draft the following April.
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) June 29, 2016
People will be buzzing about Kelly insinuating that he may use two quarterbacks – or at least refusing to rule out the possibility – but Friday’s revelation that Isaac Rochell has been slowed by some nagging back issues the last two years is one of the most interesting storylines to come out of Kelly’s presser. Notre Dame is in desperate need of production upfront this season and if Rochell can provide that and play at Day’s level, this defense has the chance to be a lot better than most expect it to be in 2016.