Ronnie Stanley's return had major impact on Notre Dame offense

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Plopped in a chair in the Notre Dame football auditorium, his 6-foot-6, 315-pound frame consuming every inch of the over-sized seat, Ronnie Stanley appeared to be a guy in his comfort zone.

There seemed to be a peace around him. He was home.

The face of the Irish offensive line had a chance to cash in his lottery ticket last year by entering the NFL Draft. Even for a guy from Las Vegas, it wouldn’t have been much of a gamble.

The League loves left tackles — and Stanley’s one of the best.

He’s long, he’s strong, and usually not wrong.

But the pull of “home” and the promise of a team that had a chance at a title convinced Stanley to put play-for-pay on hold and give it the ol’ college try one more time.

As the story goes, Stanley’s decision to return wasn’t made in a vacuum. There were other factors involved — like whether or not defensive lineman Sheldon Day chose to return.

“We shot some texts back and forth,” Day said. “(Stanley) told me that his decision rode on my decision, and I said, ‘That's too much pressure for me. Don't do that to me.’ But we texted back and forth to see where we were and try to do things like that because we said we wanted to train together.”

“It wasn’t that explicit,” Stanley said with a laugh, when told of Day’s explanation. “I knew with him it would be a more complete team. It was a part of what I was thinking about, but (the decision) wasn’t relying just on that.”

Doesn’t really matter who said what when. What is important is that it came off looking like coach Brian Kelly did his best recruiting job by landing the two talents for one more season.

“I don't know that I could put a quantitative number on (how much the two have meant to this team),” said Kelly. “But they're responsible for so much of our success in that they are arguably our best players and our best leaders. So when your best players are your best leaders, it changes the dynamics of everything that you do because they're out there in practice, setting a standard. They're in the locker room setting a standard, and then they're on the field in the way they compete setting a standard.

“I don't want to attribute all of it to them, but we wouldn't be here where we are right now without those two guys back in 2015.”

Where the Irish are is right in the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation heading into Saturday’s home finale against Wake Forest. While Day, along with junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, have been the heart and soul of a Notre Dame defense that still needs to get better, Stanley has been the cornerstone of a dynamic offense.

Quarterback DeShone Kizer and running back C.J. Prosise have snatched the headlines by rising from obscurity into starring roles. However, a big reason for their success has been the path-clearing capabilities of a solid and dependable offensive line.

Notre Dame’s run game averages 220.6 yards (with a high-water mark of 457 yards against UMass), more than 60 yards better than last year’s numbers. It’s the best production in almost two decades.

“It always starts with a commitment to it, and then an offensive line that's working well together,” said Kelly. “The pieces are right, the right people in the right position. The people in the running game in the spring that have enhanced what we're doing with our read-option game and misdirection. An overhaul of that, and really looking at it from inside out and adding, obviously, for us, a more veteran approach on the offensive line. All those three things contribute to a better rushing game.”

“The attention to detail that our offense takes (is a reason for success),” Stanley said. “We’re able to execute against whatever defenses throw at us.”

Besides the tangible success on the ground, the Irish offensive line has yielded 19 sacks. Last year, Notre Dame quarterbacks were sacked 28 times.

Stanley, as a performer and as a guy who has stepped up as a leader, has played a significant role in the upgrade.

“(Stanley has) been more demanding and more commanding just in his voice and how he demands from other people,” center Nick Martin said. “A lot of times it's the ultimate team sport, but you have to prepare and play individually and have that performance. Sometimes when you're focusing on yourself, it's hard to make other people around you better. That's where he got out of his shell and he's done a great job this year.”

Must have been a pretty big shell. No wonder it took so long to get out of it.

But Stanley finally feels comfortable in his chair.

Notre Dame offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley (78) plays in an NCAA football game between the Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)