By ERIC HANSEN - Follow me @hansenNDInsider
South Bend Tribune
11:02 PM EDT, October 24, 2012
SOUTH BEND -- Even before the goal-line stand against Stanford, even before the sledgehammer mysteriously showed up in the locker room one day and became their symbol, the Notre Dame football team's defense was one page, one chord, one voice.
Until, that is, the movie "Paranormal Activity 4" came out.
"It's too scary," said ND junior outside linebacker Prince Shembo, who broke rank and stayed home. "I don't watch scary movies."
Ironic, it is, because you can make a case that he, himself, has become a scary movie of sorts when opponents flip on the video of No. 55.
Late in games he laughs sinisterly between plays for no apparent reason, sneers across the line, does everything mentally and physically to break his opponents' will, he says.
"When a guy's not showing no fear at all, eventually someone's going to crack," the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Shembo said. "It depends who's going to crack first."
Oklahoma's fifth-ranked scoring offense or Notre Dame's second-ranked scoring defense?
Neither one of the overpowering units has seen anything that complete, that overwhelming staring at them from the other side of the line of scrimmage this season.
They'll meet in Norman, Okla., Saturday night with ESPN's College GameDay crew, an ABC national television audience and a crowd that has been warned to be "hospitable" to Notre Dame by Oklahoma president David Boren all adorning what is essentially an elimination game from the national title snapshot.
It will be the first trip to Norman for the fifth-ranked Irish since Ara Parseghian's 1966 team crushed the Sooners, 38-0, on the way to the national title that season. This incarnation of Oklahoma checks in at 5-1 and is ranked No. 8.
Shembo, for one, is hoping the Oklahoma fans disobey Boren's quasi-edict.
"I like when all the people are against us," he said.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, in turn, likes how Shembo reacts to us against the world.
His season-high nine tackles and two sacks came the last time ND played a true road game -- a 20-3 capsizing of then-10th-ranked Michigan State on Sept. 15 that launched the Irish toward their current residency in the BCS top five.
Shembo figures to be a key figure in Saturday's Oklahoma matchup. Sooners senior quarterback Landry Jones has been shaken by intermittent pressure this season, ranking a modest 37th in passing efficiency nationally largely because of protection issues.
"As long as I get in the quarterback's head, you've got to watch out," Shembo said. "I may not get the sack, but I'll make you throw the ball fast and get a pick. It feels good."
Shembo is thriving statistically, home or away this season, at his natural cat linebacker position, a year after Kelly moved him to drop 'backer just to get his best athletes on the field.
His 27 tackles in seven games in 2012 are just four short of what he achieved in 13 games last season. And his eight quarterback hurries, tied for the team lead, are six more than he had all of last season.
More rushing the quarterback and fewer drops in coverage, Kelly admits, constitute a better fit for Shembo's skill set. So is "setting the edge" on defense, something Shembo does well and that doesn't show up in his own stat column.
"That's why everyone has a role," he said. "You love your brother, so you'll do whatever you can whether or not there's fame and glory. I take pride in setting the edge now."
Which in turn makes All-America middle linebacker Manti Te'o, for instance, that much more effective.
"If Prince wasn't on the outside, obviously it causes a lot of hesitation, because you don't know where the ball is going to go," Te'o said. "At least you know when Prince is on the outside, you know the ball is going to go on the inside of Prince, and you can move that much faster."
Perhaps the best measure of Shembo's prowess is that he's delayed sophomore cat linebacker Ishaq Williams' breakthrough season another year, though Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has some packages that get both of them on the field at the same time.
Shembo's own breakthrough at Notre Dame into a premier defensive player was fueled in part by a natural hyperactivity and in part by inspiration.
The inspiration comes from father Maurice Shembo, who 13 months ago was found unconscious in a South Bend hotel room by Irish cornerback Lo Wood's father (Lo Wood Sr.). The elder Shembo had suffered a brain aneurysm, and has since made a full recovery.
"We even played some soccer this summer," Prince Shembo said. "He was getting some headers in goal, so that says a lot that he's doing fine."
Maurice Shembo also channeled Prince's excess energy as a youth growing up in Charlotte. Instead of signing his son up for one football league, one basketball league, one track team at a time, Prince would typically play in two -- and take Tae Kwon Do on top of it.
"I was always running around the house," he said. "I couldn't sleep unless I burned all that energy."
Now he causes sleepless nights for others with his play.
And the sledgehammer -- no one seems to know where it came from -- is his postgame prop.
"It symbolizes toughness," he said. "Our opponents are nails, and we smash nails. That's how we think about it. I don't know if it's going to Oklahoma with us, bit if it does, I'm going to grab it."
Staff writer Eric Hansen:
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