Stanley the new anchor man
The success Ronnie Stanley enjoyed as a first-year starter last fall eclipsed any semblance of failure, but when forced to reflect, the junior offensive tackle was able to find hitches, a prime example coming in his second career start.
The 41-30 loss in primetime at Michigan provided a valuable lesson for Stanley.
“It was more about technical things — my footwork, my targets and just everything that comes with experience,” Stanley said. “It wasn't really much of a physical aspect. When I hit people, it was still a big impact.”
Stanley was short on experience — he saw action in only two games as a freshman before an elbow injury produced a medical redshirt season — but long on confidence and ability.
A varsity career at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, one of the nation’s top high school football programs, helped produce both.
Stanley won three state titles in three years as a starter at Gorman. In Stanley’s senior season, the team finished ranked No. 5 nationally by USA Today.
“They (the Gorman coaches) meant so much getting me from high school to college,” Stanley said. “It was a big jump, but they prepared me really well. I know a lot of programs don't run their football team like my high school did. I owe them a lot for that.”
The preparation started to show last season as he blended into a starting role at right tackle opposite last spring’s first-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys, Zack Martin. Now Stanley enters the 2014 season as the only returning player to start 13 games for the offense last season.
He’ll be tasked with filling the large cleats left behind by Martin, who left Notre Dame with a school record 52 starts.
“Zack is a great player, but I'm not trying to compare myself to him,” Stanley said. “I'm just trying to be my own person. He's definitely a role model and somebody to look up to and someone that definitely left big shoes to fill.
“People are going to expect the same type of character that he had, which was a very good character. He always came to practice hard every day. I'm trying to be me and do what I can do for the team."
The move to left tackle puts Stanley in the spotlight of what’s become the closest thing to a glamour position on the offensive line. It helps that Stanley is a 6-foot-6, 318-pound former basketball player with a mean streak on the field.
"Ronnie's a really gifted athlete, and he's an athlete that can cover a lot of ground, cover a lot of space,” ND offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “Looking to get our best five guys on the field, we felt that (moving Stanley to left tackle) would allow us to do that.”
Stanley greeted any assumed added pressure with a shrug. He’s more than willing to take on whatever role Hiestand asks of him. Left tackle hasn’t seemed like much of a change from right tackle.
"It doesn't really matter to me where I play as long I can help my team,” Stanley said. “It wasn't too much adjusting. It was pretty much just my stance was the hardest thing to adjust and coming out of my stance. Other than that, it's the same mechanics as right tackle. It wasn't that much of a difference.”
It took Stanley a little more than a month to adjust to technical differences of playing left tackle. He sorted out some of the difficulties before spring practice even began. He’s continued to impress since then.
“He's really taken his game up a notch from the standpoint of how intense he is and how hard he's working to be a good player on all the details,” Hiestand said. “His effort to improve has been outstanding."
The mental makeup of Stanley has propelled him. His athleticism may have opened the door to college football, but the ability to grasp technique and make it his own made for a smooth entrance.
“I really take in what coach says to me and try to apply it,” Stanley said of Hiestand. “If I don't get it at first, I just keep trying different ways. I like experimenting with different ways to do what he wants me to do.”
Stanley will take his turn setting examples, much like Martin and Chris Watt did before him. Talented young players like Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey are ready to soak up the knowledge.
Less than a year after starting his first game, Stanley is becoming a savvy veteran his teammates can look to.
"I just keep supporting them and giving them good feedback and not being negative,” Stanley said. “I was just in their shoes not too long ago. I'm not perfect.
“I still have a lot to learn myself. I just try to be as positive as I can. Anytime I can help and throw my two cents in, I do.”
The close-knit group developed by Hiestand has created a cast of interchangeable and interwoven parts.
“We go everywhere together pretty much,” Stanley said. “We walk to meetings together. We walk outside together. We don't leave anyone behind. I have pretty much the same feeling about whoever I play next to.”