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Front seven outperforms expectations

| Friday, October 10, 2014

F7WebKevin Song / The Observer

Questions? What questions?

The preseason doubts about Notre Dame’s front seven have been largely snuffed out, as the group has provided the Irish with the ninth-best run defense in the FBS by rushing yards allowed per game. Overall, Notre Dame’s defense ranks third in points allowed per game with 10.2.

But the questions, while they lasted, didn’t bother the defense, sophomore defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said.

“The thing is, as far as a D-line, we’ve been good; there was just a question mark in people’s minds, which is completely fair,” Rochell said. “We lost a lot of guys. We lost a coordinator and got a new coordinator.”

Rochell said the defensive line, which faced its biggest question after losing Louis Nix, Prince Shembo and Stephon Tuitt, always practiced with confidence, no matter what people said. Their defensive linemen’s perseverance has paid off, as they have anchored Notre Dame’s run defense.

“The question mark would be there no matter what, but we’ve always grinded and always worked hard and always trained to be the best D-line we could possibly be,” he said. “So with that question mark, we’ve still trained to be the best.”

The new question is, “What has been the key to this group’s success against the run?”

Along with linebackers sophomore Jaylon Smith, senior Joe Schmidt and sophomore James Onwaulu, the defensive line has stifled opposing running games.

So far this season, the best rushing performance by an opponent came from Rice in week one when the Owls (2-3, 1-1 C-USA) managed 141 yards. The defense twice has kept opponents well under 100: Syracuse mustered 56 and Stanford just 47.

Success starts at the top with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, junior defensive lineman Romeo Okwara said.

“He definitely adds intensity to the defense and more attack base, so it’s very fun,” Okwara said of VanGorder.

Rochell also pointed to VanGorder as a sparkplug for the defense’s dominance. On the final play of the win against Stanford (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12), VanGorder eschewed a draw-back victory defense in favor of a blitz. Players come to expect that sort of thing when playing under VanGorder even though opposing offenses can’t sort him out, Rochell said.

“In your mind, you would think play it safe, let’s just victory defense, just do that,” he said. “But it’s just typical VanGorder to be like, ‘No, we’re gonna bring the house.’

“It’s fun, and it brings a whole other dynamic to the game,” Rochell added. “As far as opponents scouting us, you never know. It’s been really enjoyable playing under his defense and his scheme.”

The front seven have tried to reflect VanGorder’s aggressive, energetic attitude, Rochell said. Junior captain and defensive lineman Sheldon Day has played an important role in motivating the defense as well.

“We always work with the philosophy, ‘The speed of the leaders is the speed of the pack,’” Rochell said. “So that’s how it’s always been. Sheldon does a good job putting things in perspective.”

Building off a strong leadership base, the defense bands together to support one another, Okwara said.

“You don’t want to let any of your teammates down, so everyone tries to do their best job,” Okwara said.

Much depends on camaraderie and attitude for a young front seven, Rochell said. Stopping the run starts with the toughness of the front, but everyone has to buy into the resolve to grind opposing rushers to a halt.

“I think we’re just strong up front, and we have a ‘You’re not going to run on us mentality.’ I think the biggest thing in defending the run is obviously your front seven … and then it’s a mentality, ‘You’re just not going to run on us.’”

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