NOTRE DAME — Prince Shembo can still remember his first practice under head coach Brian Kelly.
Shembo, a freshman in 2010, was running gassers with the rest of the team when he noticed one of his fellow linebackers wasn’t doing so well.
“Guys weren’t touching the line and we had to keep on going back, and I remember seeing Dan Fox running and throwing up at the same time,” Shembo laughed. “I told myself I am not going to throw up.”
Alongside Fox, Manti Te’o and classmate Danny Spond, Shembo has grown up in a defensive scheme blueprinted by an offensive-minded head coach. Now Shembo has Kelly to thank for the 44-day layover between Notre Dame’s last regular season game against USC and the national championship game against No. 2 Alabama (11-1).
And that’s created — in Shembo’s words — a few “angry,” restless members of the defense. So when Notre Dame went back to full contact practice earlier this week, some of the hits were extra hard.
“I know it’s not tackle-to-the-ground, but sometimes you get a mean streak and then say ‘My fault, Coach, I don’t know why I did that,’” Shembo said.
The defense — Shembo and the linebackers in particular — will have plenty of targets on Jan. 7. They’ll face Alabama running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon and an offensive line anchored by center Barrett Jones.
Lacy and Yeldon both have 1,000 rushing yards on the season (Lacy with 1,182, Yeldon with exactly 1,000), 6.5 yards per carry and 27 touchdowns between them. And if the Irish linebacker corps cheats up to stuff the run, Crimson Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron is capable of punishing them with a 50-yard bomb over their heads.
Talk about a rock and hard place.
Spond certainly isn’t sugar-coating the challenge.
“They’re an awesome offense,” he said of the Tide. “They’re in the national championship game every year for a reason. The best offensive line we’ll face all year. We’ll have to be perfect.”
Both Spond and Fox compare Alabama to Stanford in terms of a physical, run-oriented offense with a talented quarterback.
“They out-physical every team they play,” Fox said of Alabama. “From what I’ve seen on film, they do a lot of play action and that’s something we know they’re going to do and be ready for.”
Spond says he’s dreaming of a 2013 national championship banner hanging above the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium. And, despite the long layover between games, the Irish aren’t fearing a drop off before January.
“This is a whole new level of mental state for this game,” Spond said. “It’s a step down from the Super Bowl basically....This will make or break our season. This will go from having people say, ‘This is a good team’ to ‘This is a great team.’”
That same head coach that made Fox puke on his first day at the reins isn’t letting his team approach this game like any other bowl game.
Kelly said he typically lets his team stay out until 2 a.m. the first couple of nights they’re on the road for a bowl game. Not this year. This year, curfew is 11 p.m.
“This is not a bowl game,” Kelly said. “This is the national championship game.”