Ronnie Stanley returns to ND to chase championship

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Just after midnight late Saturday night, Ronnie Stanley tweeted out a one-word message that spoke volumes.

“Torn,” Stanley wrote, breaking a long silence on his Twitter account, and presumably not talking about his pants.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Notre Dame offensive tackle was all in and headed back to school for his senior season, deferring his NFL draft aspirations for at least a year.

"This was a difficult decision," Stanley said via prepared statement. "My dream isn't just to play in the National Football League. I want to win a national championship.

“I've waited to this point, so I could watch the actual (national championship) game and see if I felt any emotion. And I felt a great deal. I am a competitor. I want to play on the top stage, so I've decided that I'm returning to Notre Dame for my senior year.”

A year after losing four early entries to the NFL Draft, Irish head coach Brian Kelly goes 4-for-4 in keeping them. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2015 draft is Thursday.

Stanley, defensive tackle Sheldon Day, quarterback Everett Golson and offensive lineman Nick Martin all requested draft projections from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, though only Day and Stanley were serious candidates to leave. Day announced his return Saturday.

With Stanley closing the door, the Irish will return 19 starters for 2015, the most among the 65 Power Five Conference teams. Most of the way-too-early projections for 2015 have Notre Dame ranked between No. 10 and No. 22.

The Irish finished 26th in the final AP poll of 2014, 28th in the coaches poll.

"We've got a chance to have a special season next year,” Stanley said. “Many of my teammates are returning, and I've made strong bonds with lots of them.

“If all of them weren't coming back this year, it would've made it an easier decision to leave. All this, the opportunity to graduate, and much more, led to my decision to stay."

It may turn out to be a prudent business decision as well. Stanley was projected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick by most draft analysts in this draft cycle.

Scott Wright, of draftcountdown.com, said the 6-foot-6, 315-pounder from Las Vegas could be a top 10 pick in 2016 and perhaps the top tackle prospect in that draft. That’s assuming he skips his option to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame’s most recent top 10 pick at any position was defensive lineman Bryant Young in 1994, the year Stanley was born. The last Irish offensive lineman to go in the top 10 was George Kunz, No. 2 overall to the Atlanta Falcons in 1969.

"Ronnie has developed into a premier offensive lineman," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. "With another year at the position, and gaining more knowledge under the outstanding coaching of Harry Hiestand, Ronnie could be the best tackle in all of college football.”

Now can he help make the Notre Dame offensive line one of the best in the country?

He is the one absolute on a line that underachieved for much of the regular season, then dominated an elite LSU front seven in ND’s 31-28 Music City Bowl victory, Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn.

Sophomore Mike McGlinchey, who got his first college start against LSU, is the top candidate to hold down the right tackle spot. Martin could return to center, the position where he made 11 starts in 2013.

Returning starters Steve Elmer and Matt Hegarty will likely be pushed hard by a group of fast-rising prospects that include freshmen Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson as well as sophomore Colin McGovern.

Stanley did see action during ND’s 2012 title game run as a true freshman, working in cameos in two games early that season. But an elbow injury ended his season, and he was able to get that year back as a medical redshirt.

Stanley then started 13 games at right tackle in 2013 before replacing four-year starter Zack Martin at left tackle this past season. Martin, the 16th pick of last spring’s draft, started at guard for the Dallas Cowboys this season and was the only rookie to make the AP all-pro team.

On pace to graduate in May 2016, Stanley is majoring in management-consulting in Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business.

“As his coach, I'm proud of the manner in which he handled it,” Kelly said of the draft decision process. “He's matured so much since he first arrived on campus, and this is just another example. Ronnie now has a chance to leave Notre Dame as both a graduate and first-round NFL pick."

Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley, right, walks off the field with teammate Jaylon Smith following Notre Dame's victory over Rice on Aug. 30, 2014. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)