Prince Shembo

Ten players, ten reasons: Prince Shembo

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The fourth in a series on ten below-the-radar players whose performances helped key the Irish’s run to the national title game. Others include Zeke Motta, Danny Spond and TJ Jones.

The logic used to put Prince Shembo at the Dog linebacker position in 2011 made plenty of sense. Darius Fleming was returning. Get your best players on the field. Find a way for Shembo to just make plays. And while Shembo did his best to make the transition to the wide side of the field work, asking a guy whose Twitter handle includes the name Rambo to back pedal just as often as he charges after a quarterback — well let’s just all agree it wasn’t the best fit.

Shembo’s sophomore season wasn’t a disappointment, but it did leave some statistics to be desired. With just 31 tackles and two sacks, it was clear that the 6-foot-2, 255-pound linebacker had spent more time thinking than simply playing, something he did to impressive effect as a true freshman, where Shembo might not have had a clue what he was doing, but he managed 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble with a limited agenda: Go get the quarterback.

That wasn’t Shembo’s job in 2011 and his playing time showed it. Against Air Force, Jamoris Slaughter saw the majority of snaps down in the box, with Shembo logging just 14 that afternoon. Less and less the game plan included Shembo when the offense dictated it, and Shembo saw diminished time against Maryland and Boston College as well.

Heading into the season, many wondered where the Irish were going to get their pass rush, especially with the loss of Aaron Lynch. It turns out part of the answer was to simply unleash Shembo, and return him to his natural position.

Shembo’s junior season was the perfect confluence of events. Necessity, opportunity and preparation all merged. Starting for the first time at the Cat linebacker, Shembo’s stat line exploded, his 48 tackles were sixth on the team. His 10.5 tackles-for-loss second only to Stephon Tuitt. And his 7.5 sacks off the edge — and countless more quarterback hurries — a tremendous complement to Tuitt’s presence. Rambo returned to his job and the entire defense benefited. A year after playing just 57 percent of the defenses snaps, Shembo was up to 83 percent, the most of any linebacker not named Te’o. And with more playing time, Shembo brought the production desperately needed.

Perhaps the key to Shembo’s fit in the Irish defense is his versatility. With a stout presence and ability to battle blockers much larger than him, Shembo gives Bob Diaco the ultimate Swiss Army knife, with Shembo at home with his hand on the ground as a defensive end or playing linebacker. One of the great values Fleming brought to the Irish defense was that same versatility. Perhaps it’s telling that Shembo’s so good rushing the passer that the Irish ran more four down fronts this season with a first-time starter in Shembo than they did with Fleming.

Identified and recruited by Charlie Weis’ coaching staff, Shembo didn’t fit the mold of outside linebacker types Brian Kelly usually recruits. Yet Shembo’s been a key cog to this Irish defense, and he plays much larger and tougher than his size dictates.

Just as important is the swagger Shembo brings to the unit. Often seen carrying around the defense’s sledgehammer, Shembo coined one of the defense’s best rallying cries — and probably its second best too, when he accused Denard Robinson of stealing his bike seat at the pep rally before the Michigan game.

Shembo plays like Diaco wants the entire defense to play: Fearless. Take his comments before facing off with Oklahoma’s Belldozer, the gigantic quarterback Blake Bell.

“He’s a big guy. 6-6, 260. Well I squat 600. So we’re just going to go and meet him in the hole.”

“We’ve got monsters on our team,” Shembo continued. “Troy’s a monster, Eifert’s a monster. The more practice with monsters, the better. If I’ve got to fight a dragon every day — without getting killed hopefully — I’ll know how to beat the dragon eventually.”

Shembo has spent the last month preparing to face off with another set of monsters, the Alabama offensive line. And while many expect Alabama to be doing the pushing around, Shembo doesn’t seem too worried.

“I mean, we’re physical too,” Shembo said yesterday. “Two physical teams are about to go up against each other. Then it’s just going to lead to Xs and Os after that. I don’t think any of us are going to get pushed around. It’s going to be even-steven.”

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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