The last time Notre Dame and Air Force met, a 59-33 Irish victory in 2011, then Notre Dame freshman outside linebacker Troy Niklas wasn’t on the field at the same time as standout Air Force linebacker Austin Niklas, a junior.
This time, a reunion is expected to occur on the field, but no long with the Niklas’ (Troy is now at tight end and Austin has graduated). Rather, Air Force sophomore starting left tackle Matt Rochell (6-3, 260) could face off regularly against Notre Dame reserve defensive end Isaac Rochell (6-3, 280).
Many factors play into Rochell possibly seeing his most extensive action of the year this weekend while lined up on the opposite side of his brother. First, nose guard Louis Nix III won’t make the trip (knee tendinitis and shoulder), forcing Kona Schwenke into the starting nose position. Next, end Sheldon Day has been recovering from an ankle injury that has limited his reps. Finally, the high altitude in Colorado Springs generally necessitates a rotation.
More than a dozen family and extended family members of the Rochells are expected to be in attendance, most notably father Steve and mother Gina.
“Even when I first committed to Notre Dame, [my parents] knew there would be a time coming where we’d play each other,” Isaac said. “They’ve been excited about it for years.
“They’re excited to see both of their kids playing on the same field, especially at this level. It’s a big deal and it’s an accomplishment as a parent. … I think that’s what they’re most excited about, not necessarily like the specifics of the game plan and stuff like that.”
The two would often go against each other in board drills at Eagle’s Landing High in McDonough, Ga., and Isaac traveled with Matt on an initial visit to the Air Force Academy. They communicate regularly while avoiding as much as possible conversation about the imminent meeting.
“He watches Notre Dame [and] I watch Air Force and big brother, just like I would at home,” Isaac said. “We talk about each other’s seasons but not necessarily about playing each other. It’s something we talk about a little.
“I talk to him all the time. We’re not going to talk about specifics of game, game plan or anything like that. We just talk like we normally would: How’s your week? How's school going? … casual conversation. I’m trying to treat it just like a regular game and just evaluating their whole o-line, including him, just as I would any other o-line. I’m just treating it like he’s a normal lineman for a normal team.”
Playing at the lowest class level in Georgia, Rochell faced a lot of triple-option teams because most of the smaller schools didn’t have enough skill people to run a conventional offense. That at least gave him a base off which to work this week.
“Even if you do feel confident it’s one of those thing that each time you play an option team you have to re-focus into your keys because you don’t face it all the time, especially at this level,” he said.
“You can overthink it if you’re not prepared. If you’re prepared it’s just muscle memory, and you’re just not going through the motions but you’re just used to it so you know what to do.”
On paper, Rochell appeared destined for a redshirt year when he signed last February, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day were ensconced as the starters, with Kona Schwenke, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell next in line during the spring, and then Jarron Jones, Tyler Stockton and freshman five-star Eddie Vanderdoes also expected to contribute.
Instead, Springmann and Hounshell will be medical redshirts this season, Vanderdoes opted to attend UCLA — and Rochell gradually added 20 pounds while becoming one of the stronger members of the team. This summer he did 26 reps of 225 pounds. (To put that into perspective, Florida State’s 2013 first-round defensive end Bjoern Werner had 25 reps at the NFL Combine.)
“My weight training in high school was above other programs, and so all through high school, it just comes down to working hard,” Rochell said. “You just develop based on your work ethic, so all the people in my high school program developed exponentially throughout the years. It’s the same here.”
While the advanced physical development has been significant in Rochell's progress, his football skills and mental acumen also have contributed to his rise.
“It helps, but there are a lot more factors than just strength,” said Rochell, who has been credited with three tackles in his seven game appearances. “You see a lot of times guys that are not as strong that are competing at a high level, and then vice-versa — guys that are complete muscle heads and they’re not necessarily competing at that high level.”
Rochell entered his freshman year with the lone expectation of working every day to improve rather than worry about where he stood in the lineup.
“Whether you play a lot or not, it’s the same across the board for everybody,” he said. “You’re ready at all times just because you work hard and you do your job at practice and you prepare yourself the same way either way. It’s not something I’m surprised by. You just prepare yourself just like if you didn’t play — or played a lot.
“It’s still football. You go full speed the whole time.”
It might be accelerated even a little more this weekend.