Manti Te’o - the most decorated defensive player in Irish history - gets most of the credit.
Stephon Tuitt and Lou Nix III are mentioned frequently when plaudits are handed out for Notre Dame’s defensive brilliance in 2012.
Now, they’re talking about the back end of the stop unit with returning cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, and all those talented safeties.
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The most forgotten man may very well be the centerpiece of the positive upturn that saw the Notre Dame defense rank among the nation’s best while putting up numbers that haven’t been posted by the Irish since the 1988 team allowed just 12.3 points per game.
Senior Cat linebacker Prince Shembo is by far the most unsung hero on the Irish defense. His 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks both ranked second on the squad behind Tuitt. His 12 quarterback hurries topped the defense while his 51 tackles were the most among defensive front four personnel.
If you don’t think Shembo is the most underappreciated member of the 2013 defense, Brian Kelly wants you to know that you’re all wet.
“I think you guys are missing the boat on Prince Shembo,” Kelly said. “The way he plays, the passion that he plays the game with every single play…it’s so enjoyable.
“He’s a throwback in a lot of ways with his energy and his toughness and the way he comes to work every day. It’s 100 percent all in. He plays the game with that chip where I’m going to do whatever is necessary on this play to be disruptive.”
Shembo flies under the radar for a couple of reasons. He leads with his pads - literally and figuratively - and leaves the talking to chatterboxes like Nix and Jackson.
Shembo’s approach is reflected by his heritage. His father, Maurice, moved to the United States in 1986 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and a speak-when-spoken-to attitude guide Shembo’s approach to life and football.
“It started when I was young,” Shembo said. “The way I carry myself started with what my dad said. He said when they go out there, they’re going to try to hurt you so you’ve got to hurt them before they hurt you. I’ve been thinking like that ever since, and continuously working hard. My parents work hard so I try to live my life like that and never be satisfied and always try to get better every day. That’s how I live my life.
“I listen to everything. They’re the coaches. That’s their job, so I listen. I don’t need to say anything. Why do I have to talk? I’d rather listen. Most of the time when you talk, you talk too much and get in trouble. You’ll never get in trouble for listening. So that’s how I think.”
Shembo is shorter than most top-rated outside linebackers in the country, which he believes works to his advantage.
“I’m happy the way I am to be honest,” said Shembo of his 6-foot-1 ½ frame. “(Leverage is) exactly why I want to be the size I am. I’ll get under other guys.
“I ask a lot of linemen, and they don’t like to bend, and if I work on my leverage, it’s hard to block shorter guys. I don’t have the arm length of a taller person, but I make up for it with the strength in my legs. I can get low under them. I prefer how I am.”
Look at the list of the top outside linebackers in the country, and despite his 19 career tackles for loss and 14 sacks, you’ll be hard-pressed to find him on anyone’s top 10 at his position.
That, too, is a mistake. Yet accolades and pre-season recognition are mere words for the Charlotte, N.C., product.
“We just do what we do,” said Shembo, who has participated in 38 of 39 Notre Dame games the last three years. (Shembo missed the 2011 Michigan State game when his father fell ill.)
“Come out every day and work hard. Try not to take any time off. I know people have aches, but that’s part of football. You go treat it, treat your body like a temple, eat good foods, stuff like that, and get ready.”
Shembo thinks that he can influence every play that he’s on the field.
“You’ve almost got to take his helmet away from him,” Kelly said. “I love those guys. We’re running a 7-on-7 drill, and he’s the four-down rush guy. It’s 7-on-7, but he’s “collisioning” the receivers when they’re coming across. That’s just Prince.”
Shembo has a drive and motivation to succeed that is exceeded by few. It comes from the work ethic instilled by his parents and has escalated the more he’s tasted success on the gridiron.
“I’m starting to be able to recognize things, different formations…There’s a lot of pre-snap stuff,” Shembo said. “Obviously, you work on fundamentals and try to improve everything you do every day.
“More speed, a lot of techniques. You can’t just run up there and smack into the guy. I’m trying to work on visualizing what the o-linemen are doing and trying to shift his momentum. Little head nods and stuff like that.”
Listed at 250 pounds in the spring, Shembo now checks in at 258 pounds, yet he looks to be a slimmer version of himself from a year ago. That means he’s shed most of the excess/unneeded body fat, reshaped himself, and is primed to end his collegiate career on a high note.
“I spent the summer trying to become a better pass rusher, a better run defender, just playing with more energy, and getting in better shape so I never get tired,” Shembo said. “If you can never get tired and they get tired, you can take advantage of it.”
Kelly appreciates Shembo’s matter-of-fact toughness and his unquestioned approach to his work ethic.
“He doesn’t lead vocally,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy that’s not going to say much. But just his energy, his passion and his actions out on the field and the way he works…I love his approach.
“You can see just by his uniform -- it’s drenched every day - about the work he puts in every single day.”
Maybe this year, Shembo’s tremendous contributions to the defense will be seen by all.
“He’s so skilled at coming off the edge,” Kelly said. “He brings an energy to the team, a toughness to the team.”
It should be hard not to notice.