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‘‘Cat’’ linebacker Prince Shembo making a name for himself on Notre Dame’s defense

BYU v Notre Dame

BYU v Notre Dame

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Updated: November 26, 2012 7:26AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Prince Shembo breaks his day into three distinct parts: There’s class, there’s lunch, and there’s practice — two hours of drudgery, of mind-numbing drills, of exhausting and exhaustive workouts that leave players physically and emotionally spent.

“That’s recess,” Shembo said.

Football’s clearly a little more fun for Shembo, who plays one of the few positions that isn’t completely bogged down in assignments, responsibilities and minutiae.
Shembo’s role as Notre Dame’s “Cat” outside linebacker?

Get the quarterback.

“I just play football, man, that’s just all I do,” Shembo said. “You start thinking about, ‘I gotta do this, I gotta do this,’ you start freezing. When you’re a kid and you’re playing freeze tag, you just want to run around, right? That’s what I’m doing.”

Tag. You’re it.

“Until the ball is thrown and the whistle is blown, he’s trying to kill the quarterback,” said tackle Zack Martin, who’s had the unfortunate privilege of battling Shembo in practice for three years.

Shembo — projected by ESPN as a second-round draft pick if he leaves early this spring — always has been a freewheeling player, dating back to his high school days in Charlotte, N.C. But with current San Francisco 49er Darius Fleming occupying the Cat spot last year, Irish coach Brian Kelly moved Shembo to Dog — the drop linebacker who spends much of his time in pass coverage. The idea was to get the 11 best athletes on the field, but Shembo had never played in space before, and he struggled to adapt his style of play. He started eight games and even managed a couple of sacks, but it wasn’t exactly the Shembo who goes by “Rambo” on Twitter.

“I’m an aggressive player,” he said. “I like to go stop the run or go chase that dude. But you’ve got to be patient. That’s one thing I learned. I started to build patience.”

Fleming’s graduation allowed Shembo to become top Cat. He’s as aggressive as ever, only now with the experience, knowledge and, yes, patience to maximize his effectiveness. And while he loves practice and studies film, his role is still mostly improvisation.

“It’s a lot of instinct,” he said. “Things just happen. I might just cut inside just because I cut inside, just because it feels good.”

Kelly called the Cat spot a “natural fit” for Shembo.

“Now he’s in his rush stance; you know he’s coming,” Martin said. “He’s got his ears pinned back and he smells blood.”

There’s more to the role than just getting sacks — after all, Shembo’s only got two of them, yet he’s a huge part of ND’s success this season. He’s a relentless presence in the opposing backfield, with eight quarterback hurries, forcing opponents into bad decisions and hurried throws. He also sets the edge for the Irish, funneling ball-carriers back toward the middle, where Manti Te’o and Co. are waiting.

At 6-2, 250 pounds, with incredible strength and quickness, he gives the Irish an advantage against just about any tight end in the country — even Stanford’s massive duo of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, who found themselves jammed by Shembo all day before they could even start their routes.

Shembo said that strength, ability and relentlessness comes from practice, from banging heads with the likes of 6-6 Tyler Eifert and 6-7 Troy Niklas every day.

You know, recess.

“We’ve got monsters on our team: Troy’s a monster, Eifert’s a monster,” Shembo said. “The more you 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.”

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