Sept. 21, 2015
By Todd Burlage
The career highlight so far for University of Notre Dame senior Ronnie Stanley didn’t come on a pancake block or a blindside blitz.
Stanley’s video football diary begins with a memorable and entertaining moment from the Blue-Gold Game last spring in April when he was asked to trade pass protection for a pass reception.
Anchored in his usual spot as an offensive left tackle — only this time as an eligible receiver — Stanley drifted off the line of scrimmage as former Irish quarterback Everett Golson took the shotgun snap. Golson rolled to his right, turned left, and zipped his pass back to the waiting and wide-open Stanley.
Like a luxury liner leaving port, Stanley devoured the pass like a Nerf ball, headed upfield, bounced outside left off a block, and tightroped the sideline for 14 yards and a first down.
“It’s a 50-percent touchdown each time. Next time, I’ll score,” said Stanley, a former All-America prep lineman and a standout basketball player at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas.
Brian Kelly commented immediately after the spring game that Stanley’s shining offensive moment was the carrot during preseason negotiations between the Irish head coach and his star player to ensure Stanley would set aside NFL dreams one more year and return to Notre Dame for his senior campaign.
“The only way he was going to come back was if I put that play in, that was the sealer,” said Kelly, putting on his best poker face and burying the punchline. “He was really committed to coming back to Notre Dame for a lot of reasons, but the No. 1 reason for him coming back was to get that football today. … I’m kidding.”
BEING THE BEST
All joking aside, Kelly likely would have made a pass play, or about any other concession, to lure back his 6-6, 315-pound All-America lineman for one final season. Stanley’s importance as a blocker and a leader on his team can’t be overstated.
As a two-year starter at tackle — one at left in 2014, one at right as a true sophomore in 2013 — Stanley has become the foundation of the Irish offensive line. He is the only Notre Dame lineman to start all 26 games the last two seasons, dominating defenders in all of them.
On a unit that struggled at times last season in pass protection while giving up 28 sacks, Stanley worked against some of the best pass rushers and defenders in the country. He allowed just one sack while delivering 16 knockdown “pancake” blocks.
“Physically, he’s athletically off the charts for his size,” Kelly said. “He’s long, athletic with an ability to move his feet. Ronnie has a great understanding of the game of football. All of those things come naturally to him.”
Stanley’s blend of size and athleticism have him rated as the top offensive left tackle in the 2016 National Football League Draft class and a sure top-10 pick in what has become the most coveted position for NFL teams outside of quarterback.
Following in the footsteps of former great college tackles Eric Fisher of Central Michigan in 2013, Jake Long of Michigan in 2008, Orlando Pace of Ohio State in 1997, and Ron Yary of USC in 1968, some draft analysts even suggest Stanley has a chance of joining this elite four-man fraternity by elevating himself to the No. 1 overall selection in the NFL Draft next spring, and making some Notre Dame program history in the process.
The highest an Irish offensive lineman has ever been drafted came in 1969 when George Kunz went No. 2 overall behind USC Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson. Kunz justified the selection by making the Pro Bowl eight times.
NFL Draft analyst, Scott Wright, the founder and editor of draftcountdown.com, assessed Stanley’s draft prospects this way.
“I don’t think there are any questions physically,” said Wright, emphasizing that Stanley made a wise decision in returning to school. “He’s got size, he’s got the arm length, he’s got those nimble feet that you look for in a blindside pass protector. He’s not a guy that I think his draft stock will fluctuate greatly. He’s going to be in the top-half pick of round one, if not a very early pick in the first round.”
While a promising career and millions of dollars await Stanley at the pro level, team pursuits brought him back to college, in a close call.
“I was torn at a point where I just didn’t know where I wanted to go,” Stanley says. “I thought I did know at a point, then I had second thoughts about it. It was just an ongoing process of me looking at myself in the mirror and asking myself what I really wanted to do.”
When we think of recruiting, it’s typically college coaches courting five-star high school kids that are usually a couple years removed from seeing the field and making an impact. That’s why Kelly’s best off-season recruiting coup came in early January when he and Irish offensive line coach, Harry Hiestand, made a trip to Las Vegas to “re-recruit” Stanley back to Notre Dame.
The message was clear.
“Another year in the weight room, another year working out,” was the secondary and obvious part of Hiestand’s pitch, “but big-picture wise, having a degree from Notre Dame. If he didn’t finish now, he wouldn’t finish it.”
Stanley said the coaches’ visit was much more “formal” than his high school recruitment.
“It was straight to the facts, the pros and cons of what was going on, just more of a business talk than anything,” Stanley recalled.
“Everything is more serious when there is money involved.”
And there was plenty involved.
Even with only two full years of college experience, Stanley was still projected as a first-round draft pick after the 2014 season, and an instant millionaire if he chose the NFL route. But duty and loyalty called.
“I knew that we had a chance to be something special as a team this season,” he said. “I didn’t want to be that guy that left without any closure.”
A lot of advice, evaluation and prayer went into Stanley’s decision to return to Notre Dame. But through all the inside info, ironically, an outside football program provided the tipping point.
Stanley’s Eureka moment came the night of Jan. 12, when Ohio State capped its magical postseason run, beat Oregon, and claimed the first College Football Playoff championship. Stanley announced the very next day via Twitter his decision to return to Notre Dame. “I’m coming back. 1 year. 1 reason #Natty #ND.”
“Seeing the emotion and happiness it brought to [Ohio State] and knowing that I could be in that spot, and knowing that we have the talent in place to be in that spot, is something that really struck me,” Stanley said. “I 100 percent feel we can win a national championship.”
And for Stanley, that’s a team goal worth way more than any individual NFL riches could buy.
All the way back to his high school days, Ronnie Stanley has always been a quiet leader, a by-example kind of guy.
That all changed during a frustrating end to the 2014 regular season when Stanley finally boiled over and broke his silence after Notre Dame was beaten badly at USC, a fourth straight loss for the Irish.
Sometime between the embarrassing 49-14 blowout loss to the Trojans, and the dramatic team turnaround during preparations for its Music City Bowl matchup against LSU, Stanley found a leadership voice he knew he had, but seldom used.
Stanley explained that an elite football team features so many different ages, egos and characters, humility kept him from even speaking up, let alone lashing out.
“I’m not that guy that goes around every day trying to yell,” Stanley said. “I was just never too firm in that leadership role.”
But with a career clock ticking, “I just wasn’t sure if [the Music City Bowl] was going to be my last game with all my teammates,” Stanley added. “It was something that was in the back of my mind, so I definitely wanted to give everything I had.”
Mad and motivated, Stanley took the vocal lead and helped the Notre Dame offensive line dominate an LSU defensive front that was considered to be one of the stingiest in the country. Stanley’s unit surrendered no sacks and paved the way for 263 rushing yards on 5.2 yards per attempt in a 31-28 upset of the No. 22 Tigers.
“He was extremely vocal, more than he’s ever been, and it just charged up everybody,” Kelly said of Stanley’s bowl game prep and performance. “Ronnie is not a big talker. It just seemed to elevate everybody’s play.”
Including his own.
Stanley admitted to being shocked that he has become a projected first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft this spring, but he also understood the importance of staying in the moment and away from all the Internet accolades.
The key to becoming great, he said, is to not listen to anyone that says you are already great.
“Those [draft projections] aren’t going to do anything for me this season. I just ignore it,” Stanley said. “There is still so much to learn, just to improve every day and be that rock my team can lean on, knowing that you never have to worry about what I’m doing because I am always going to get my job done.”
Even if his workload includes a couple of surprise snaps as a wide receiver this season.