Blue-Gold Game: Stanley next in line for Notre Dame

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Even on a day when the term “polar vortex” only semi-jokingly was referenced during a rare outdoor spring practice for the Notre Dame football team, Ronnie Stanley was one of the first players on the practice field.

And one of the last to leave.

The ND junior-to-be offensive tackle and Las Vegas native did so with a smile on his face even if his teeth were probably chattering, as did the other Irish offensive linemen. And it’s not because there was some symbolic agenda involved with the position group that logged the most field time, but because Stanley believes it tangibly makes a difference.

The 6-foot-6, 318-pounder’s smooth ascendance into four-year starter Zack Martin’s replacement at left tackle is Exhibit A.

And he and the rest of the healthy members of the Irish team will all be on exhibit at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday (12:30 p.m. kickoff) during the 85th-annual Blue Gold Game, to wrap up spring practice.

Harry Hiestand, the man who unassumingly stirs the chemistry and has helped assemble perhaps the best young talent at the offensive line position group anywhere in the country over the last three recruiting cycles, can’t remember when and where he started the tradition of coaxing his players to become the practice ironmen of the team.

But the third-year Irish offensive line coach most certainly remembers the purpose behind it.

“There’s a lot of stuff to cover with the offensive line,” Hiestand said matter-of-factly. “I’ve always felt like they can only get so much in the meeting room looking at the tapes in there and sitting down and talking. I’ve always felt guys would learn a lot more by walking through it, seeing it in front of them as opposed to just watching it on a chalkboard or a video screen.

“It’s more realistic.”

And the reality is that the talent/depth/player development concoction has Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly expecting to build — not rebuild — on a season in which his 2013 line gave up the fewest sacks in a season (8) by an ND squad since the Lou Holtz/Joe Moore group yielded seven in 1989.

Seven seasons ago, the 2007 Irish offensive line gave up nine sacks in a game, a 33-3 season-opening flogging from Georgia Tech.

Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game will likely provide a look at the offensive line that’s more surreal than real, with projected starters Nick Martin (center) and Christian Lombard (right guard) out of the mix with injuries, and the offense around them still largely herky-jerky because of the sheer volume of new plays, wrinkles and formations, as well as a frenetic tempo, that were shoved at them in the previous 14 spring practices.

That’s on top of adjusting to the loss of 2013 standouts Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt.

“Our chemistry is not anywhere near where it needs to be,” Hiestand said. “It’s definitely out of whack. We’re throwing guys all over the place, but in the long run what we’ve gone through this spring will really benefit the football team.

‘‘We’ve had guys (lined up) pretty much everywhere. I think sometimes they did struggle and have struggled with it, but it also helps you be a better football player, because it gives you a much better understanding of the whole picture. Yes, we’re concerned about the ability to function as a unit, but I think we’ll have time to get that solved in August.”

There shouldn’t be so much distortion, though, Saturday that fans can’t at least get glimpses of what fuels Kelly’s optimism about the next wave of offensive line prowess.

It starts with Stanley, who started at right tackle in 2013 and got on the field as a true freshman reserve in the national title game run in 2012 before a shoulder injury truncated that season in September, resulting in an injury redshirt.

“It was pretty exhilarating when I was in the game,” Stanley said of his initial 15 minutes-plus of fame. “It felt like I was in a video game the whole time. I couldn’t believe how many people were around me.”

Redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey probably knows the feeling. The player with perhaps the highest ceiling on the offensive line, and not just because at 6-8 he’s the closest to it, is a player whose Blue-Gold Game performance could create some momentum toward locking down the final starting spot on the line.

It’ll be either McGlinchey at right tackle or Matt Hegarty or Conor Haratty at left guard in the fall, with versatile sophomore-to-be Steve Elmer settling in at the spot that falls short in that battle.

“It’s awesome,” Hiestand said of McGlinchey’s upside. “But this is obviously a big adjustment for him. He comes from a real small school in Pennsylvania. He grew up understanding the physical nature of the game, but wasn’t necessarily challenged like that every day.

“He just made contact with the guys he was blocking, and they’d go down. It didn’t really matter how he did it. And he’s figuring out at this level it matters how you do it every snap and suddenly you’re the cause of a bad play because you’re not on your game every snap.”

At the start of spring, Kelly considered McGlinchey, Elmer and Stanley for Martin’s old left tackle spot. Elmer played in 10 games last season as a true freshman, starting four, playing both guard and tackle.

But Stanley settled the left tackle question about the time the team made the transition from shorts to full pads in practice 3 of the spring.

“He’s extremely athletic for a big fellow,” Kelly said of Stanley. “He uses his arm length to his advantage. We’d like to see him continue to work on being more physical, but he’s a really good athlete.

“He’s a really good basketball player too on a very talented team in high school. He kind of has that kinesthetic awareness in that he can really get his body in good position and knows where the quarterback is.”

Until sometime between his sophomore and junior years at Bishop Gorman High, Stanley actually thought basketball was his future. Playing on a high school team with former Minnesota Timberwolves first-round draft choice and ex-UCLA one-and-done star Shabazz Muhammad can do that to you.

Then again, when Stanley first tried football, at age 5, he was certain he’d grow up to be a wide receiver.

“Basketball will always be my first love,” Stanley said. “It was self-realization (to shift the emphasis to football). Then I wanted to see how good I could get.”

So now does Hiestand, who has had a knack of helping turning the traditionally most overlooked position group into stars. With no tangible stats to build on, Zack Martin, for example was still named MVP of last December’s 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl conquest of Rutgers.

Martin’s imprint is on this group, too, even though he’s four weekends away from becoming some NFL team’s first-round draft choice.

“I learned from him that there’s no excuses,” Stanley said. “He never moped around. If he was feeling bad a day at practice, he always was still up. He brought it every day 100 percent.”

In some ways, Hiestand is the piece least likely to fit so consummately into ND’s offensive line renaissance.

When he left Tennessee three years ago to come to ND to replace Ohio State convert Ed Warinner, the Vols’ fanbase radiated indifference if not mild approval. In recruiting circles, Hiestand was known as a hard worker, but not necessarily dynamic.

At Notre Dame, he’s evolved into a force on the field and on the recruiting trail.

For Kelly, it was a rare reach outside his comfort zone of assistants who had crossed his path at previous coaching stops.

Hiestand did have a year at arch-rival USC on his résumé, but his association with the late Joe Moore — sort of the godfather figure in ND offensive line lore and the standard by which his successors have been measured — more than canceled out the shallow thinkers’ bad P.R.

Hiestand and Moore met each other through mutual mentors, and the former ended up job-shadowing Moore while he was at ND coaching for Holtz — all long before Kelly was in the picture.

“What I knew about Harry was the way he taught and the way his players felt about him,” Kelly said. “For me, I’m a head coach that demands a mental toughness with his group across the board. And for me, when I evaluate my coaches, what I look for is how hard do (his players) play? I think (that’s) the measure of an assistant coach more than anything else.”

And this Irish unit plays hard, they play long, and most often play well. They also play with the passion of a man, whose barking probably would be more noticeable if it weren’t for new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose own constant high-decibel instruction could probably drown out a jet engine.

“I think it’s a treat playing for coach Hiestand,” Stanley said. “I don’t think you’ll ever find a guy like coach Hiestand anywhere. He has a character that’s just like none other. He’s one of the most honest guys I’ve ever met in my life.

“He’ll be straightforward with you and he really cares about each of his players and wants them to reach their full potential, not just as a player but as a person. Me and him have pretty much been on the same page since I’ve been here.”

Ronnie Stanley is working to become the next great left tackle at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)