COLUMNS

Ronnie Stanley tackling the move on Notre Dame's offensive line

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Sometimes right to left can be night to day.

The game looks different. Stakes are higher.

But the challenge is the same.

Keep Everett Golson clean.

Ronnie Stanley spent last season at right tackle, getting a feel for how things worked on the Notre Dame football team’s offensive line.

That formative process is over. Zack Martin, who seemed to play left tackle forever, is gone. The 6-foot-6, 315-pound junior from Las Vegas has now made the move to the big money position, left tackle, and is entrusted with protecting Golson’s blindside.

It’s a difficult switch that has taken some time.

“First of all, you have to have somebody that is a really good athlete,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “Athleticism has to be part of making that switch. Here is a kid (Stanley) that played on a very, very good high school basketball team (Bishop Gorman was ranked 11th in the country Stanley’s senior year). Somebody that is athletic is premium in making that kind of decision because he’s changing hands, if you will.”

“The adjustment was hard in the beginning, just getting all the footwork; seeing all the right targets,” said Stanley. “Now that I’ve gotten used to it, I don’t see any problems now. That’s a good position for me.

“To play at full speed at that position with the right footwork, I’d say I’m still working at it. I’m definitely coming along. I feel comfortable where I’m going.”

He better. The test waiting for him Saturday night against Michigan will be significant. Last year, Martin called Wolverine defensive end Frank Clark (6-2, 277) one of the toughest players he faced. Guess what? That’s who Stanley has in his crosshairs.

“(Clark) is definitely a high-motor player,” Stanley said. “It’s something I’m working on this week. I’m focused on what he does, his strengths and his weaknesses as well. I’m locking in on their defense in general, and (Clark) in particular with my position.”

Understanding the position is imperative in order to take on a dynamic pass rusher (Clark had 43 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season) at full speed.

“(Playing left tackle is) about balance,” said Tom Thayer, who played on the Irish offensive line for four years (1979-82). “That’s the physical attribute you have to have to make the change. You have to have the understanding that it’s the opposite of what you did at right tackle. You’re going to be pushing off a different foot.

“You’re going to be trying to come under balance in the second or third step of a guy’s pass rush. You need to be in a powerful position so that you’re not taken off balance too easily.

“The key ingredient is that you need to know the system, so that when you do go to the line of scrimmage, you’re 100 percent understanding of what you have to do. That’s just going to make you a better athlete anyway. You’re going to do everything more organized with a better understanding.”

“Balance is really important,” said Stanley. “There’s so much room for a defender to work with on the edge. You want to be there, whichever way he goes. You don’t want to be fooled. You want to be in the right position at all times, a good football position. That includes a lot of balance.”

Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand spent a lot of time last spring and this preseason tinkering with positions – all except left tackle. The goal was to give Stanley every rep possible.

“He has to get a lot of work,” Kelly said. “That was one position that we didn’t mess around with once we moved him. He stayed there, he got the reps and we committed to keeping him in that position and be not moving him around. We made all the other changes internally but that was the one that he needed that work. So, one, the athleticism and, two, giving him that opportunity to settle into the position.”

“I see the game so much more clearly now (compared to last year),” Stanley said. “Not because my spot on the line, but from my experience; seeing more defenses.

“All in all, I feel very comfortable where I’m at right now.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on it (in the spring). Now is when that work is starting to pay off.”

That’s not to say that, from one week to the next, problems can’t arise.

“It all depends on who you’re playing against,” said Thayer, who had a long professional career (1983-93, mostly with the Chicago Bears) and is now a radio analyst for the Bears. “You can have a really good week of practice and be really familiar with your teammates and your assignments, and nothing’s too big. But, if you go out there and you’ve got a star (pass rusher) on your side, that’s the best pass-rushing position – it takes a better understanding of the left tackle position because that’s the high-profile position on the offensive line against a good pass rusher.”

Having a guy like Golson at quarterback can lead to some interesting situations – even for offensive linemen. His penchant for extending a play forces the other 10 players to stick with their assignment just a little longer.

“We’ve got a quarterback who never gives up on a play, so that means we can’t give up on the play either,” Stanley said. “Everett’s fun to block for. You never know when he’s going to do something else.

“I like (having a freelancer at quarterback). That just means I have to stay with a block as long as I can. He can make plays happen.

“Once we see him outside the pocket, we try to help him as much as we can. If we can give him time, we know he can do some good things.

“I’m focused on my man, I don’t really know where (Golson is) going.”

“The quarterback is such a good athlete that you can challenge pass rushers if you have an offensive tackle making an adjustment or trying to get used to a new position,” Thayer said.

The NFL analyst in Thayer couldn’t help but come out. He compared the quarterback qualities of last year’s Super Bowl combatants: The sedentary nature of Denver’s Peyton Manning and the mobility of Seattle’s Russell Wilson.

“Golson is such a good athlete, you’re not in a scenario where you have Peyton Manning,” Thayer said. “You’re more of a scenario where you have Russell Wilson. (Golson) is so damaging with his feet that he could make the left tackle better.

“Seattle knew that Manning was going to be a stationary target. Wilson was never going to be a stationary target. That’s one of the assets that Golson brings.

“(Hiestand) and the offensive line, they have to have discipline. They still have to make sure they’re a well-choreographed offensive line against blitzes; against different protections. Everything has to follow a certain order.

“You can never rely on, ‘It’s OK if I get beat because our quarterback’s great.’ No. You can never get beat. If you do, your quarterback’s very good (and it may not be disastrous).”

“He’s still learning it,” Kelly said of Stanley. “There is still some work to be done there, with his kick and getting off the line and getting more comfortable with changing that kick step that gets him some depth off the line of scrimmage. That’s still a work in progress. But he certainly is somebody that we really think is going to be an outstanding player at that position.

“Ronnie has a personality that allows him, he definitely, you know, the room heats up when he’s in there. You know Ronnie is in the room. I think he’s definitely growing and maturing. I think he’s got leadership capabilities. Every day he starts to show more and more of that. It’s pretty clear that (center) Nick (Martin) is the leader on the offensive line, and I think (right guard) Christian (Lombard) is probably right there with him, and then I think Ronnie is starting to grow into his role as well.”

Stanley stubbornly refuses to allow the pressure that goes along with playing football’s premiere position on the offensive line to have an impact.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Stanley said. “I just try to protect my quarterback. I don’t look at one position more important than another. I just play my hardest on every play.”

“The mental part of it is kind of exciting,” said Thayer. “If you have the ability. If you have the ability to switch positions on the offensive line, you know ultimately it’s going to pay dividends, either for your future or your ability to be a better offensive lineman.

“When you’re playing with a right-handed quarterback, the left tackle is always going to be the high-profile guy because you’re guarding his back and making sure he’s protected in the stadiums that are going to be super loud.”

Expect that sort of environment Saturday night. This will be a benchmark in his growth at left tackle.

An opportunity to really feel comfortable.

Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley holds off Rice defenders as running back Greg Bryant picks up yards during the season opener last week in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

•Saturday’s game will be the only night game of the year at Notre Dame Stadium.

•Notre Dame has played more than twice as many games against the Big Ten as any other conference.

•Notre Dame is 123-47-5 all-time against the Big Ten teams at home.

•Notre Dame has won 11 consensus national championships while Michigan has won nine titles.

•The Irish beat Michigan en route to the 1943 and 1988 national championships. Michigan beat ND on the way to national titles in 1902 and 1997.

•Notre Dame has 875 Football Bowl Subdivision victories (third all-time) while Michigan leads with 911, although the Wolverines have played nine more seasons. Texas is second with 876 victories.

•Angelo Bertelli (1943) and Tim Brown (1987) both beat Michigan during their Heisman-winning seasons while Michigan’s Desmond Howard (1991) and Charles Woodson (1997) both beat ND on their way to the Heisman.

•Notre Dame played a school-record tying seven night games in 2012 and six more last season. Michigan is the first of at least three night games this season.

•Notre Dame’s first night game came in 1951, a 48-6 win over Detroit at Briggs Stadium.

•Michigan is one of only four schools that own a winning record against Notre Dame (based on a minimum of five all-time meetings). Florida State, Ohio State and Nebraska are the others.

•Over the last 29 meetings, dating to 1979, the Notre Dame-Michigan game has been decided by seven points or less on 18 different occasions.