Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has urged his players to enjoy the journey. It's a message Prince Shembo embraced a long time ago.
Shembo carries the sledgehammer, a symbol of Notre Dame's defense that originated with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco
It’d be difficult to find another player on the roster that extracts maximum pleasure out of both the banality of practice and the drama that accompanies game days more than the junior outside linebacker.
The 6-2, 250-pounder sees the game through the eyes of a child, but plays it like The Bogeyman.
Since switching from dog linebacker, which is much more responsible for dropping into pass coverage, to the quarterback-hunting cat position, Shembo has found his niche. The North Carolina native leads the dominant Fighting Irish defense with eight quarterback hurries, has added two sacks and three total tackles for loss.
“Practice is the favorite part of my day,” he said. “It’s like recess for me. You’ve got class, lunch and then you have recess.”
He’s learned to appreciate film sessions and has embraced the nuances of the four linebacker positions employed by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. While still applying that information, Shembo has also figured out a way to simplify the game.
“Guys want to knock our heads off and we want to do the same thing,” he said. “…It’s the same mentality; we’re never going to change. We’re like a bunch of little kids that like to run around. I just play football, man. When you start thinking about you’ve gotta do this and you’ve gotta do that, you start freezing.”
Diaco has given Shembo a long leash when it comes to improvising on the field, but Shembo’s teammates know he’ll be in the right spot.
“First of all, we had Darius Fleming there last year and he did a great job in always setting the edge and making sure that the ball was always inside of our defense, and then you have somebody like Prince Shembo,” senior inside linebacker Manti Te’o said. “Those are pretty big shoes to fill, but Prince has done a tremendous job in not only just setting the edge but being a player and being a weapon out there.
“If you look at him, Prince is not that big compared to the guys he's going up against, but when you watch the tape, that little 6-1 dude is folding 6-8, 300-pound linemen, so I'm happy to be on the same side as Prince Shembo.”
Shembo and the Irish defense have faced a number of powerful offensive lineman and menacing tight ends this season in teams like Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma. The difference this year is that those assignments weren’t much different than what Shembo has had to deal with on a daily basis throughout the week.
“We’ve got monsters on our team,” he said. Troy [Niklas] is a monster; Tyler [Eifert is] a monster. The more you practice with monsters the better. If I go fight a dragon every day without getting killed … I think I’ll know how to beat the dragon eventually.”
Kelly explained that using Shembo on the opposite side in 2011 was a matter of filling a need, and not so much playing to Shembo’s strengths.
“It was definitely to get our best players on the field at the time,” he said. “And, as you know, we were developing some younger players at the position. Prince obviously plays much better when we can shorten the field and he can get after the quarterback. He's great over at tight end. It's just a more natural fit for him being at the cat position.
“He's, first of all, a guy for us that can match up against any tight end in the country. We feel like that's a favorable matchup for us when we have Prince Shembo over at tight end. That coupled with his ability to rush the quarterback, I think both of those things stand out for us; that you've got a guy that could be so strong against the runs and then give you great effort, too. He's a guy that doesn't take a play off.”
Fans have begun to take notice of the sledgehammer different Irish defenders carry around before games. It was an idea that originated with Diaco; it’s a symbol Shembo has a hard time letting go of and sharing with his teammates. It’s the only thing he doesn’t want to share with his fellow “D-Boys.”
Whether it’s a good laugh, which included telling Stanford tight end Zach Ertz between plays that he wasn’t rated as high by NFL scouts as Notre Dame’s
Eifert, or going to the movies (except for horror films; Shembo doesn’t dig those), the defense does everything together. Shembo is content with the allotment of praise being spread evenly.
Besides, he’s too busy looking for the next head to knock off. But, please, be careful with that sledgehammer.
“I’m like Thor with the hammer,” he said. “I think [before the BYU game] I accidentally hit [Robby] Toma. I was swinging it and I didn’t know he was behind me and I hit him in the leg. At practice I was swinging it around [Thursday before BYU] and I accidentally hit Bennett [Jackson] in the knee.
“I’ve got to be careful, so I don’t swing it now.”
So far this fall, he has inflicted enough pain without it.