At the conclusion of minicamp last week, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith gushed over the potential of rookie linebacker Prince Shembo, viewing him as player the coaches could shape and mold into a productive inside linebacker.
Shembo, who came from Notre Dame as an outside linebacker, appreciated the high praise.
"It feels good to hear it from the head man," he said. "But I can never be comfortable. I never will be comfortable. I'm going to keep on studying and keep on working. And that's the mentality I've had since I was little: Never feel too comfortable."
The Falcons are trying to find their comfort level at inside linebacker following the loss of veteran Sean Weatherspoon to a season-ending Achilles tear. Although veteran Tim Dobbins was signed as added insurance, he is unlikely to be the guy the Falcons lean on. And although Joplo Bartu started 13 games last season and has been working alongside Paul Worrilow with the first team this offseason, the coaches would like to see more improvement from him.
Based on Smith's word, Shembo has a legitimate chance to win a starting job alongside Worrilow in the team's 3-4 base defense.
"We've got Prince Shembo, who we're very excited about," Smith said. "He's picked up the system very well. He doesn't have any experience, but we're going to give him a lot, I assure you that, in the preseason."
Shembo said understanding what everyone is doing around him has been the primary adjustment when it comes to moving from outside to inside. He steadily picked up on details as the offseason progressed. And Shembo constantly picked the brain of veteran Akeem Dent, who was traded to the Houston Texans last week in exchange for quarterback T.J. Yates.
"Akeem helped me out a lot on the field," Shembo said. "He knew the system. If I had any questions, I just went to him. When I first started [inside], I'd go to him and say, 'OK, Akeem, so what am I looking at? What I'm reading?' Then it was like, 'Do I fit out there? What happens if the receiver goes out in motion on this side?' Stuff constantly changes."
Shembo initially expected to come in and develop as one of the team's pass-rushing outside linebackers. He still could get his chance to get after the quarterback -- as a blitzer.
"The thing with me is, I try to blitz where it says on paper, but I'm starting to realize -- the more I saw it in practice -- that I just have to blitz where the hole is," Shembo explained. "On the paper it might say, 'Blitz the A-gap.' Sometimes, the A-gap might be closed. And in the beginning, I was just trying to force my way through there. Now, I just have to find the open window and take my opportunity."
If Shembo takes advantage of his opportunity, he could find himself in the lineup for the season opener against the New Orleans Saints.
"I can't say anything until I earn it," he said. "I need to come back here and get in that film room."