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Notre Dame’s season may have gone down the tube in November, but left tackle Ronnie Stanley‘s stock has been sky-rocketing. The third-year junior (Stanley is a sophomore eligibility wise) is finishing up his first season as a left tackle and beginning to garner plenty of looks as a potential first-round draft pick.
On Sunday, Brian Kelly acknowledged that Stanley was one of four players to submit paperwork for an NFL evaluation, joined by Nick Martin, Sheldon Day and Everett Golson. But only Stanley will have a true decision to make, with many believing the Las Vegas native is one of the country’s top tackle prospects.
I caught up with Rotoworld’s Josh Norris, who was one of the early champions of Stanley’s work. And after a tip from a Notre Dame fan over the offseason, Norris has watched Stanley’s prospect status explode after his position switch.
“I did a preview piece going into the season going over all the tackle prospects because a lot have been taken early, even if they’ve struggled. After I finished, I think a Notre Dame fan commented, ‘You should check out this Ronnie Stanley guy,'” Norris recalled.
“I knew he was a right tackle switching to left tackle, but I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is really good.’ To me he was a Top 50 prospect heading into the season. And I think he’s only gotten better.”
That opinion has been shared, with the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah applauding his work against USC. Norris walked me through what it is that scouts are seeing from Stanley that has them so excited.
“I think he’s playing like the top tackle in all of college football right now,” Norris said. “I was worried with how assertive he was and aggressive he was. Because [last season] he was kind of more using his length and frame just to keep a distance, not asserting his will on opponents. But this year, he really does look far more aggressive. He has more power and more strength.”
After seeing Zack Martin become one of the fastest risers in last year’s NFL Draft, I wanted to see how Norris compared Stanley to the former Irish captain, now having an impressive rookie season for the Dallas Cowboys at guard.
“I think Stanley and Martin are very different prospects, even if they play the same position,” Norris said. “I think that Martin, where he really won was how strong his grip and his latch was. He loved to control you with your chest and manipulate you and was the aggressor. I think he won in tighter spaces, and that’s why he’s playing guard and succeeding very well there.
“In terms of staying on an island and succeeding in pass rush situations, I think I would trust Stanley more than I did Martin. Because I think Stanley has more length, and he’s adding on to his strength.”
After a season of watching tape, Stanley ranks as Norris’ top draft-eligible tackle, ahead of LSU’s La’El Collins, who the Irish will matchup against in the Music City Bowl. Even with one year of experience at left tackle and two seasons of eligibility remaining, Stanley could be the next Notre Dame first rounder, perhaps as soon as this spring.
“I do think he’s ready now. I would not advise him against declaring, so it’s his decision,” Norris said, before looking at the depth of the tackle prospects across the board. “But I think it’s actually one of the better positions in the class. So that might contribute to a reason why Stanley stays.”
After watching the Irish lose Troy Niklas and Stephon Tuitt after just three seasons in the program, Notre Dame fans are hoping Stanley sticks around — not just to graduate and get his degree but to be a key cog up front on a 2015 team that returns largely in tact.
But after an impressive junior season, the future looks bright for Ronnie Stanley.
Throughout spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp, Brian Kelly did everything he could to make us believe a quarterback battle was taking place between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.
Twelve games and 22 turnovers later, the Irish finally have one.
Fueled by Golson’s struggles to protect the football over the season’s final nine games and Zaire’s competent play in his 2.5 quarters of lopsided action against USC, the most important job in the program will be open for competition.
That means for the first time since Golson returned to campus last spring, he and Zaire will take snaps on equal footing, with both quarterbacks taking dead aim at a starting job.
“We have to go into that practice with a mindset of giving Everett and Malik both an opportunity to show what they’re made of and how they’re going to compete,” Kelly said on Sunday. “But at the same time, see what competition looks like from that standpoint—true competition.
“Because, obviously, this was not a competitive situation during the year. Malik was the backup, and I think I made that pretty clear. We’re going to let them compete, and we’ll see where that puts us come game time.”
Game time means the opportunity to go against LSU’s defense. A young, talented and deep group that’s played excellent football since giving up 41 points to Auburn in early October, the Tigers will give a very blunt assessment as to where the Irish quarterback is, especially with over three weeks to prepare for Notre Dame.
But regardless of where the chips fall heading into the Music City Bowl, it’s clear that Kelly has taken not just the November slide, but Golson’s play on whole as an opportunity to reevaluate how he views the quarterback position. And it could mean a harsh reboot of a position that’s the key to driving the Irish offense.
“There’s some things that have to change at that position,” Kelly said. “So we’re going to have to see how quickly they are, if we’re on the right track, if we’re making progress there. That could be an extension into the spring. I really think it’s just a matter of we’re going to have to take it really step by step.
“We know there’s competition at the position. Now let’s let them go and compete.”
After hearing from Kelly, it’s clear that the next three weeks aren’t necessarily about the best quarterback for the Irish to beat LSU, but rather the best quarterback to lead the program. And that should leave both candidates feeling recharged.
For Zaire, it’s an open competition at a position that looked spoken for through January 2016. For Golson, it’s the chance to clear the slate and get back to the basics. And for Kelly, it’s a chance to reiterate the ground rules and reboot a competition that desperately needs someone to take hold of the job.
“Let’s be clear. The best I can give you is there’s a way I want that position to operate, and it’s going to operate the way I want it to operate,” Kelly said. “If you operate it the way I want it done, you’ll be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.”
With 2014’s fate largely settled, there’s no urgency. Meaning we’ll have the opportunity to see Golson and Zaire battle until the coaching staff is settled on an offensive leader.
“It may be eight practices. It may be a year. But I’m going to have to see what I need to see from both of them,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame got what it wanted.
And if you thought Brian Kelly was looking for an easy matchup to become the first Irish head coach to win eight games or more in each of his first five seasons, think again.
“We wanted to be challenged again,” Kelly said, when discussing the formidable draw of LSU for the Music City Bowl on December 30. “There’s no sense going into this bowl game situation and feeling like you’re not going to be challenged.
“I feel like there are matchups there that don’t give you the same kind of challenge. This is one that we wanted.”
You get the feeling Kelly wasn’t speaking for Irish fans. Forget about the Sugar Bowl trouncing after the 2006 season, a game that showed the ocean between Charlie Weis’ best team and the SEC elite. After watching Notre Dame get creamed against USC in Los Angeles over Thanksgiving weekend, a segment of Irish fans were saying to skip a bowl game all together.
But that’s not how you build a football program. So even if the difference between a seven-win season and an eight-game campaign is largely insignificant, Kelly expects to accomplish a lot in the next three weeks.
With the Irish coaching staff on the road recruiting until later this week, Notre Dame will meet for their first practice this Friday. It’ll be the first of eight scheduled in South Bend, before getting another handful of practices in down in Nashville. All with the aim of not just notching what would be their most impressive victory on the season, but building the foundation for 2015.
“The tone is pretty clear about what the expectations are. There’s competition,” Kelly said. “There’s competition at all positions. So we’ll be looking forward to that kind of spirited practice opportunity.”
It appears that some of the injuries that plagued the Irish against USC could be on the mend. Kelly’s optimistic that safety Max Redfield can return from a rib injury. He also expects Greer Martini to be back. Same for cornerback Cody Riggs, taking on a familiar foe in his final collegiate game. There’s hope for Sheldon Day as well.
With a commitment to physical play during bowl prep, Kelly will do whatever it takes — even flipping some reserve offensive linemen to the opposite side of the ball so the Irish can go full tilt.
That type of work during bowl season will be key as the roster has little turnover from 2014 to 2015, but desperately needs to identify what it takes to go from the inconsistent team that crumbled down the stretch to a group with lofty postseason aspirations.
“This is really about improving our football team more than anything else and improving the play,” Kelly said. “As I told our football team, I really haven’t had much problem with this group in terms of their preparation and the way that they work. They put in the time. We’re just a sloppy team on Saturday.
“So we have to find out what’s that component? Why is that occurring? What are those things that are happening? So we’ve got to clean up what Saturday is about. Some of that is communication, trust. Some of that is confidence in your ability to go out and do your job. So this will allow us to really reinforce some of those things over the next three weeks.”
There is work to be done. And then there is a very difficult football game to win.
Les Miles’ Tigers feature the fourth top-ten defense the Irish will face this season. They took Nick Saban’s Alabama team to overtime this November. They knocked Ole Miss from the playoff hunt.
Long odds against a group that lost to Northwestern this November? To say the least.
But there might not be a better way to let a young football team know what it takes to win than stack them up against one of the SEC’s elite programs. Even if on paper it looks like a suicide mission.
“We think we’re going to be a really good football team. We’ve got some things that we have to clear up and address on Saturday,” Kelly said. “We’re, obviously, a few plays here and there from having a really good football season and talking about different situations.
“But we are who we are, and we think that this game in particular allows us to continue to not paint a false picture of who we are, but where we need to get better as we look towards 2015.”
Notre Dame will be spending the holidays in Nashville. Sunday afternoon the Irish accepted their first ever bid to the Music City Bowl, where they’ll take on LSU. Les Miles’ football team finished the season 8-4.
The Irish had access to the bowl in their first year affiliated with the ACC, taking one of the Tier I spots as part of the school’s scheduling agreement.
“We’re thrilled with the opportunity to face LSU — one of the preeminent programs in all of college football,” said Kelly. “When we worked with the ACC to fashion our agreement, part of the attraction for Notre Dame was the ability to provide our program with this type of matchup. In that vein we’re excited to come to Nashville, to play in a bowl in which the University never before has participated and to play in a top-notch NFL venue.”
The Tigers lost four conference games this season, falling in September to Orange Bowl participant Mississippi State. They were blown out 41-7 by Auburn.
LSU lost back-to-back games in November, falling in overtime to Alabama before being shutout by Arkansas 17-0. The Tigers rebounded with a victory over Texas A&M to close out the regular season with an eighth victory. Their eight wins also included a 10-7 victory over then No. 3 Ole Miss.
“We are very excited to bring our football program and the great LSU fan base to Nashville to play Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl,” LSU coach said in a statement. “Notre Dame is a traditional football power and we are looking forward to renewing what has been a tremendous rivalry between the two programs through the years.”
More to come after Brian Kelly’s press conference.