No player on Notre Dame’s defense has started more games than senior linebacker Prince Shembo. The undersized veteran has spent the last three seasons quietly morphing into a player that head coach Brian Kelly feels comfortable calling a leader.
Prince Shembo works on exploding off the line during practice at the Loftus Center this spring.
Shembo has played in 38 of 39 games since coming to South Bend. The only game he has missed during his Irish career came in 2011, the day after his father suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm. The 6-2, 250-pound Shembo isn’t plucked from central casting as far as outside linebackers go, but his explosive athleticism has made him impossible to leave on the sidelines.
In an ideal world for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, he would have a line of players at both outside linebacker positions each three or four inches taller and a few pounds heavier than Shembo — his backup, junior Ishaq Williams, is cut more from that cloth. But Shembo said he makes up for the size he lacks with leverage and attitude.
“I might be shorter than everyone else, but I’ll smack the crap out of you,” he said. “Short guys have some advantages.”
Shembo has started at both the Dog and Cat spots during the past three years. He said he feels more comfortable at the Cat position, where he plays nearly half the game with his hand on the ground and close to the line of scrimmage. He jumped from 31 tackles as a sophomore to 51 as a junior when he moved down to Cat. He also finished second on the team (behind Stephon Tuitt) with 7.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss.
This year, Notre Dame is counting on him to ramp up his presence in opponents’ backfields. Shembo will be a key part of the team’s pass rush in its nickel defense and during other passing situations, Kelly said.
“I think continually getting after the quarterback is what we need from Prince,” Kelly said this week. “There’s some work there left for him. I think what he brought last year consistently was a readiness; he was ready to play each and every week. But I think there’s another level for him in our third-down nickel package as a pass rusher, and I think there’s definitely room for improvement in his coverage skills.”
Shembo’s size makes rushing the passer a different challenge than it is for a player like Tuitt. This spring Diaco, who also coaches Notre Dame’s linebackers, has been pushing the soon-to-be senior to develop moves and methods of attack that fit his body type along the line of scrimmage.
“We’re taking his game from, just to put it in terms some people might identify with, a master’s level to a Ph.D. level,” Diaco said. “He really needs to work on the tools that suit his biomechanics for rushing the passer.”
Diaco said he’s also trying to get Shembo into the habit of preparing for specific opponents and learning where they are most susceptible on a week-to-week basis. That’s a process the coach says will give Shembo a “doctorate” level understanding of getting after the quarterback of which few other players on the team are capable.
Shembo’s growing knowledge of the defense and his experience has pushed him into the leadership discussion for a defense that has been searching for a new anchor this spring. He said he has tried to embrace that responsibility this spring, but not in a way that changes who he is on the field or in the locker room.
“I’m not a big vocal guy unless I have to talk,” he said. “If you try to do things that aren’t natural it’s not going to be right. The talkers are going to talk. The guys that lead by action are going to lead by action.”