Shembo is the given among Diaco's outside linebackers. A three-year contributor, tied for the team lead with 14 career sacks and well within shouting distance of the program record 24.5 set by Justin Tuck (2002-2004).
But Shembo's partner on the perimeter, senior classmate Danny Spond, is no longer part of the plan, his career over due to the effects of *hemiplegic migraines. In Spond's stead steps a pair of untested and disparate talents, junior Ben Councell and true freshman Jaylon Smith.
(*Spond's statement on his condition can be read read here.)
"They were thrust into that position and they've handled it very well," said head coach Brian Kelly of his new pair at drop linebacker. "I would say that when you look at that position, there's so much going on to the wide field, formationally, adjustments, pressures.
"Ben has a lot of experience there. Jaylon has done remarkably well in such a short period of time in picking up the defense and certainly has the athleticism to cover space. You have two guys where one is already 250-plus pounds in Ben Councell (that) can play over a tight end. If (an opponent) wants to play really physical and have a fullback in the game, Ben suits (the defense) very well although he can play in space.
"If you want to go 3-wide, if you want to play an open set, Jaylon has incredible athleticism to be able to play in space, so we really think we have two players there and the depth at that position that we're lucky in losing a player like Danny Spond to have those two guys."
Smith was the nation's best prep outside linebacker prospect for 2013, Councell earned Diaco's nod as the most improved defensive player during the team's 15-practice spring.
"I heard through the press about that," said Councell of Diaco's April praise. "I would say it was probably my outlook of taking one practice at a time. Just going out and trying to dominate each and every practice."
At nearly 255 pounds, the 6'5" Councell fits the profile preferred by Kelly and Diaco for the perimeter. But he didn't arrive so tailor-made.
I came in (2011) at about 220 pounds and now I'm about 255, so I've added 35 pounds," said Councell. "During spring ball, we boosted (weight) pretty quick. I was always pretty quick and pretty fast for my size (but) having the additional weight, you just start noticing your knees after practice swelling up, and your lower back starts cramping, stuff like that. The strength staff worked really hard and gave us agility drills over the summer so we got that under control."
Councell got the position's myriad requirements under control by heeding the advice of his coordinator. "The coaches, especially coach Diaco, is always trying to impress upon us at every meeting: 'Dominate the day.' After awhile, you really realize you have to come out and dominate that day, because if you think in terms of the future you won't bust your butt enough each day."
Blessed for SuccessWith an upper body carved from granite (see recent photo), the 18-year-old Smith, to borrow from Max Cady of Cape Fear fame, "appears to have a leg up, genetically speaking."
"Jaylon is a talented player from a tangible skill standpoint," said Diaco. "He also has a maturity about him in his preparation that's beyond the typical freshman that comes in. He's very coachable, he's intently listening and trying to work on the things we're coaching.
"I would say that he has a higher level of football intelligence than some," said Diaco when pressed to praise his true freshman. "He can piece together, for example, a formation as it relates to a play. He's not just waiting for the ball to snap to react to what he sees. He's at another level where he's -- it's not great yet -- but he's in this mental process thinking about 'What could possibly happen against this surface?' That's really a next level (veteran player) thought.
"I'm not one to heap on a whole lot of words and critiques on a young guy. He still has to go to practice and school (rather than focus on camp.) Every day is a new day for a guy that's never done it before. I'm very happy with him and he has some very unique and elite tangible traits."
Formally UniqueThough not at the near-mythic level of Smith, Ishaq Williams was the incoming prototype two years ago at this time. 6'5" 255 pounds of athleticism rolled up into a kid that had no idea how hard it would be to compete at a new level.
Now a junior, Williams apparently does.
"He's a spectacular athletic talent," said Diaco of Williams' ability to play the boundary edge (Councell and Smith are the the field/wide side). "I think that Ishaq has developed into a guy that has multi-positional ability. He has the talent and athleticism to play our overhang, outside linebacker position, but he has the strength and ballast and body size and length to play as one of our ends.
Suddenly a position of need following the defection of Eddie Vanderdoes and a season-ending injury to Tony Springmann, a full-time move to end isn't in the cards for the 261-pounder.
"We would anticipate when (boundary linebacker) comes available, we expect Ishaq to be that guy in the future," said Diaco of the position won by Shembo. "Even though (Williams) may have multi-position ability for fall 2013, he may end up in that (boundary) spot for '14. He's fast, he's athletic, he's big, he's long, he's overwhelming at the point.
"Not that he'd be just like any other guy (at defensive end), he's better than that. But if you move him to a spot where he's matched up with guys that are about his size and about his length with his aptitude…Move him out a little bit more and now he's on guys that he's too overwhelming for to contend with."
It's a step forward by Williams that will result in more playing time in 2013, at the boundary in a rotation with Shembo, as a nickel pass rusher, and as a linebacker in dime coverages -- all roles he played last fall. But 3-4 defensive end, that's new for '13.
"The fact of the matter is, a year ago, we probably wouldn't have considered that piece, in terms of (his) mindset and the ability to key-step and do the fundamental work inside," said Diaco. "But I'm so impressed with Ishaq this fall camp. He has a whole different purpose to his preparation and a completely different mindset. He's always been a good teammate, but now there's a ruggedness and an intensity to his practices and meetings that would leave us to believe he won't have a limitation."
The AlignmentIn tandem, Shembo and Williams look to control the crucial short side, the boundary edge preferred by most teams in power running situations. (Irish fans, though not Diaco, refer to it as the "Cat" position.) They'll be backed by intriguing sophomore Romeo Okwara, who at 6'4" 259 pounds, can play to both the boundary and field sides.
"They bring a lot of the same traits in terms of the jobs they do well," said Diaco of Williams and Shembo. "They're overwhelming at the point for tight ends that are trying to push them around. It's hard job to do. They have a real aptitude for creating edge stress and pressure."
Opposite, Notre Dame will have two new faces to the field side (drop linebacker), tasked with covering open space, contending with wide-side runs and turning and running with slot receivers, running backs on wheel routes, and detached tight ends down the seam.
For Councell, it's about time.
"It feels like its been a long time that I've been able to shut everything out and just go run and hit people, and that's what I love to do," he said.
That's what fans hope to see from each of them, as this trio of unproven edge defenders will go a long way toward determining the team's post-season destination through a grueling 12-game slate.
Note: For previous articles in our 20 For a Title series, click the links below:
Andrew Hendrix: QB2