SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame may be better equipped to absorb the loss of a senior defensive lineman in 2014 than in years past thanks to the kind of players Brian VanGorder is looking for in that unit.
Make no mistake, the potential loss of Ishaq Williams as part of Notre Dame's academic investigation would be a blow for the Irish given he would've been the only senior starter on the defensive line. But whereas Bob Diaco looked for physically-developed defensive ends — like Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore — the current Irish defense is more conducive for an underclassmen to slide into a prominent role up front.
"The defensive profiles we had last year, we wanted those big, big defensive linemen," outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott said. "So guys that were long and on their way, they wouldn't have been ready yet to play."
For freshmen Andrew Trumbetti (who will start this fall) and Grant Blankenship (who's on the two-deep) playing a 4-3 scheme opens the door for some early playing time. But the guy who will directly replace Williams does have the kind of size and strength that played not only in Diaco's system but will in VanGorder's as well.
Sophomore Isaac Rochell appeared in 11 games as a freshman last fall, providing valuable depth for a unit that was banged up throughout the year. With Williams suspended during the ongoing investigation, he'll take over a starting role.
Notre Dame isn't expecting perfection from Rochell, but there is a belief he's physical enough to successfully take on a larger volume of snaps.
"He is as strong a player as we have," coach Brian Kelly said. "… He's going to make some mistakes, no question, but he's got a little experience from last year and he can make up some of those bits of inexperience with his strength."
Rochell's strength has impressed junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day to the point where he compared the sophomore to another Georgia native and star defensive end.
"I could compare him to Tuitt," Day said. "You can definitely tell (he has) that down South strength."
Rochell is a big part of an already-inexperienced unit that'll have to band together without an upperclassman around in Williams. Day and Jarron Jones are juniors, though Jones bounced between the two-deep and scout team as recently as last October. Romeo Okwara is in his third year in the program as well, while Justin Utupo is a fifth-year senior. Neither Okwara or Utupo have seen consistent snaps in their respective careers at Notre Dame.
For players like Rochell, Trumbetti, Blankenship, Daniel Cage, Jhonny Williams and potentially a host of other inexperienced linemen, there's now an even greater opportunity to see the field this fall. And how those guys play could go a long way toward determining Notre Dame's fate this coming fall.