Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 2014-10-08 22:33
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- On one play Saturday against Stanford, Notre Dame defensive end Isaac Rochell quite literally knocked over Cardinal left tackle Andrus Peat.
That's the same Andrus Peat who's likely to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft and the same Isaac Rochell who, as only a sophomore, is playing significant snaps for the first time in his career. It's just one play, but the highlight of Rochell bulldozing Peat is a strong indication of what kind of player Notre Dame has in its 6-foot-3, 287 pound defensive end.
"(He's) one of the more powerful players that I've coached, and he's only going to get better," coach Brian Kelly said. "He's extremely powerful."
The greatest impact Rochell has made on Notre Dame, though, has been his contributions to a run defense that ranks in the top 20 in just about every major statistical category.
Through five games, Notre Dame opponents are averaging 2.94 yards per carry, the 17th-lowest average at the FBS level. Only eight teams have allowed fewer rushing yards per game and 11 teams have allowed fewer rushing touchdowns. Football Outsiders' S&P+ ranks the Irish run defense 16th, a good indication the raw numbers aren't misleading due to the teams Notre Dame's played this year.
For a team that began the year with most of its defensive concerns surrounding the front seven, the success Brian VanGorder's group has had in defending the run has been one of the more pleasant surprises surrounding the 5-0 Irish.
"We've been good, there just was a question mark in people's minds -- which is completely fair, we lost a lot of guys, we lost a coordinator and got a new coordinator," Rochell said.
With only two starters returning from last year's front seven (Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith), Notre Dame needed guys like Rochell, nose guard Jarron Jones and middle linebacker Joe Schmidt to step up in starting roles for the first time in their respective careers. So far, all three players have been rock-solid and major reasons why Notre Dame's defense has exceeded expectations.
What's worth noting, too, is Notre Dame has deployed an awful lot of nickel packages, taking outside linebacker James Onwualu off the field for defensive back Matthias Farley. And that hasn't done much to limit the defense's effectiveness stopping the run.
"We have a 'You're not going to run on us' mentality," Rochell said. "I think the biggest thing in defending the run is obviously your front seven, in that case (nickel) your front six, and it's a mentality. They're just not going to run on us."
The mentality certainly helps, but more importantly, it looks like Notre Dame has the right mix of players up front. Rochell and Jones are big bodies who offensive linemen struggle to move, allowing Notre Dame's linebackers to make plays. Day and Smith are dynamic threats at their respective positions. Schmidt has been a rock-solid tackler who's greatest value may be in his ability to get the front seven in the right positions.
Offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley went against this front seven plenty during the spring and summer, and while plenty of question marks swirled about that group he said he saw this level of success coming long before the season began.
"I'm really not surprised," Stanley said. "I know we have a high-energy defense and we have guys going 100 miles an hour all the time. That's really what offenses really hate is guys flying around trying to get to the ball. I'm not going to say I'm surprised they're doing this well against the run because they're always attacking and they're on the attack. They're not really (going to) sit back, see what happens and react. They're always coming at you."