Awards darling Ronnie Stanley redefining his mission at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It read like a typo or perhaps even something more sinister, like a computer hack.

There Ronnie Stanley’s name was, listed alongside Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Siale Fakailoatonga and Laiu Moeakiola and other names that could send your spellcheck into convulsions.

In a tsunami of accolades coming the Notre Dame offensive tackle’s way this summer, the most assertive of which celebrated Stanley’s potential to be one of college football best players regardless of position in 2015, this humble watch list might be the Las Vegas product’s favorite.

The Sports Illustrated cover man, No. 7 overall player in the nation per Sports On Earth, a projected top 10 pick in next spring’s NFL Draft in Chicago, a first-team preseason All-American per several outlets was humbled by his inclusion as one of 36 candidates to take home the second annual Polynesian College Football Player of the year award.

Per the award’s organizers, it’s presented annually to the most outstanding Polynesian college football player that epitomizes great ability and integrity. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, who also took home the Heisman Trophy, was the inaugural recipient in 2014.

“I’m 50 percent Tongan,” Stanley happily revealed. “My mom (Julie) was born in Tonga. I just got a travel tattoo to show a piece of my culture and I’ve very proud of the culture and to be a part of it.”

The 6-foot-6, 315-pound cornerstone of the Irish offense hasn’t actually been to the Polynesian monarchy, a group of more than 170 islands strewn out over 270,000 square miles in the South Pacific, but he is congealing plans to do so.

His more immediate plans, though, are to put in motion the biggest reason he pushed away thoughts of crashing the 2015 NFL Draft party to return to Notre Dame his senior season.

Winning the national championship, an epiphany that overtook him while he watched No. 4 seed Ohio State climb over the No. 1 and 2 seeds, Alabama and Oregon, to win the first FBS title to be settled by the four-team College Football Playoff.

“It was just the relation I could make to the players on their team,” Stanley said of the impact the Buckeye title had on his own detoured destiny. “Being kids around my age, seeing the happiness and the emotion that it brought them and knowing that I could be in that spot and knowing that we have the talent to be in that spot is something that really struck me.”

What also struck Stanley is he needed to be more than a dominant left tackle. He need to implore, to push, to set an example, to sacrifice, to teach.

In other words, be a leader, something that Stanley got a bug about in the weeks before the Irish capsized favored LSU in the Music City Bowl last Dec. 30.

“I think it was more of my team accepting me in that role and me willing to fulfill it,” he said of his transition from stepping up in the team dynamic. “I did feel like I’d be leaving a role empty if I left here,”

And now?

“I’m not afraid to get in someone’s face,” he said. “I’m not afraid to tell them what they’re doing wrong. It all depends on the person and the situation.”

Coach Brian Kelly loves what he’s seeing in the locker room from his most dominant offensive player and the one next spring who could break ND’s 21-year drought since the school’s last top 10 draft pick. And it’s not just Stanley.

The sixth-year Irish head coach has a plethora of captain candidates and his plan is to roll with that dynamic, let the players take more ownership. And the embryonic stages of it include players running certain drills in practices instead of the coaches.

“This is theirs,” Kelly said. “They have to take ownership. They have to be communicative with each other. We’re not going to be out there for them.

“And we lived through that last year, when they weren’t vocal, they weren’t communicating. It really hurt in a number of instances. So it’s been something we’ve been working hard with them, and they’ve got to take control of it.”

Stanley is more than willing to grab the joystick, but his excitement about how this team is beginning to parallel the intangibles, at least, of the 2012 ND national finalists, is the abundance of strong voices pulling together the talent, including the emerging pull of junior quarterback Malik Zaire.

“He’s an outgoing guy,” Stanley said. He’s wants to be out there. He’s not afraid to tell you what he’s thinking. He’s clear and he’s getting better as a leader and as a quarterback.

“We’ve responded to him, and he’s responded to us too. And really what I like the most about his transition was his response to his teammates and listening to them and growing from it. We’re not going to win if we don’t fulfill that leadership position.”

Kolin Hill update

Former Notre Dame defensive end Kolin Hill completed a three-day visit to Texas Tech on Wednesday, per Texas Tech’s 247Sports affiliate, and said he expects to make a decision soon regarding his landing spot since leaving ND last week.

The sophomore from Schertz, Texas, a niche player for the Irish in 2014 said Baylor was among the other programs who reached out to him after he obtained his scholarship release but that Tech would be the only school he would visit in the relocation process.

"I felt comfortable there,” he said. “I have a lot of friends that go there."

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Steve Elmer (79) and Ronnie Stanley (78) walk off with the Music City Bowl trophy following a 31-28 Notre Dame vic­tory over LSU Dec. 30 at Nashville, Tenn. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)