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.”