Former Irish defensive end Justin Tuck ranks as the Notre Dame program's best professional football player over the last decade. Reasonable minds could disagree, but Tuck, a two-time Super Bowl Champion -- and likely the best player on the field in a February 2008 upset of the then 18-0 New England Patriots -- might be the best professional former Irishman since early 1990s product Jerome Bettis concluded his Hall of Fame career.
Despite playing just three seasons, Tuck left South Bend as the school's all-time sack master, though in this case, "all-time" dates back to 1982 when the statistic became official. His 24.5 take downs pushed him ahead of four-year players such as former late 90s linebacker Kory Minor (22.5), early 80s end Mike Gann (21), and eventual first-round draft picks Bryant Young (18) and Anthony Weaver (17) among others.
Weaver's current eighth-place slotting is in jeopardy entering Saturday's contest vs. USC. Junior Stephon Tuitt has tied his total in just 22 career starts. Should Tuitt remain in South Bend through his senior season of 2014, Tuck's career record will surely fall.
It could fall this season, too, with Tuitt needing eight sacks in the final seven games to break the current New York Giants star's mark.
That is, if senior Prince Shembo doesn't break it first.
"Oh man, when I got that first one, I don't know, I felt like a Superman," said Shembo of his first of three sacks recorded in a 37-34 win over Arizona State. "I can't even describe how I felt. It felt so good."
Notre Dame's top 10 (and beyond) sack leaders since the statistic became officially tracked in 1982.
1. Justin Tuck 24.5 (2002-2004)
2. Kory Minor 22.5 (1995-98)
3. Victor Abiamiri 21.5 (2003-2006)
4. Mike Gann 21.0 (1981-84). Gann's potential sacks from 1981 aren't included.
5. Renaldo Wynn 19.5 (1993-96)
6. Ryan Roberts 19.0 (1999-2002)
7. Bryant Young 18.0 (1990-93)
8. Anthony Weaver 1998-2001), Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo 17.0
11. Bert Berry 16.5 (1993-96)
12. Darius Fleming 15.0 (2008-11)
Despite a team-best eight quarterback hurries prior to the contest in Cowboys Stadium, Shembo had yet to register his first sack of 2013, this after 7.5 take downs and a team-best 12 pressures in 2012.
Shembo's first sack came 22 quarters into the 2013 season. His second came two Sun Devils pass attempts later. Just five more Taylor Kelly drop-backs occurred before Shembo had notched his third.
"Like my dad said, be patient, they'll come, and they'll come in bunches" said Shembo when asked post-game if he had been frustrated by a sack-free first five games. "I told him all I have to do is get the first one of these and they'll keep coming."
Shembo and Tuitt both have three sacks this season, Tuitt recording his third against the Sun Devils in the second half as well, then later adding a quarterback pressure that led directly to an interception touchdown by teammate Dan Fox.
Over the last 19 games dating back to the beginning of the 2012 season, Tuitt and Shembo have combined for 25.5 sacks and 36 official quarterback hurries, though the latter number is inaccurately tracked throughout the college game. (The pair has produced far more pressures than 36, pending your definition of "hurry" vs. "pressure.")
Among Notre Dame's final six regular season foes are three of the worst at protecting their passers. USC ranks 81st in sacks allowed, Brigham Young 89th, and Pittsburgh 120th. Even option-oriented Navy has surrendered more than usual (ranking 30th among 123 FBS teams).
Both Shembo and Tuitt have 17 sacks in their Irish careers. Both will chase Tuck's record through the Holidays. One might need to break it for the Irish defense to reach its potential and the program to again compete in a BCS Bowl.
"We're all brothers," Shembo said of Tuitt and his fellow front four competitors. "Sometimes we'll get double teams, sometimes solo. We have to get around or get through them."
Asked what changed vs. the Sun Devils, Shembo offered, "Everything was the same, man," before adding, "I agree with you though, I rushed more than I did the other games. I was rushing more than I did last game. Last game (Oklahoma) was like 4 or 5 (chances). But I just want to help this team win, man. If I cover, I need to get some picks. If they let me go, I'll get some sacks."
Shembo has evolved from overmatched to adequate in his short zone coverage responsibilities when tasked as a 3-4 cat linebacker on the boundary side of the defensive formation. He's doubtless at his best with his hand down as part of Notre Dame's oft-used four-man front, getting after opposing passers.
That wasn't often an option through the season's first set of six games according to head coach Brian Kelly.
"The effort's been there all year," said Kelly of Shembo. "But the ball came out of a lot of quarterback's hands quickly. There was a play action pass (vs. ASU) that took a little bit longer, and he was able to fight through some protections. I think, if you hold onto the football at all, we're going to get home, and we're able to get home against Arizona State.
"Prince Shembo, his effort's been there," Kelly continued. "It was good to see him have some success. Any time you can have some success, you can build off of that. I know he's feeling pretty good about himself."
Feeling like a Superman, to be exact.