Following Notre Dame’s bowl win over LSU earlier this week there hasn’t been a whole lot of negative topics to discuss after a season full of them. The future of starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley, however, is one of the very few with the junior’s impending decision on whether or not to leave early for the NFL after starting the last two seasons for the Irish looming large.
After Stanley moved to the spotlight left tackle position on the line and excelled throughout the season, scouts and NFL personnel took notice. Many mock drafts have pegged Stanley as a potential first round draft pick – some even suggesting that Stanley could be in the top half of the first round. Some old school draft pundits like Mel Kiper are a bit more conservative with their projections for the junior left tackle, but with the potential to be a first round pick already it made sense for Stanley to request an evaluation from the NFL Advisory Committee last month.
While it’s not known exactly what grade Stanley received in his evaluation, Keith Arnold has reported that Stanley did not receive a first round grade. Before Notre Dame fans get too excited though, Troy Niklas didn’t receive a first round grade last year either and that didn’t stop him from leaving a year early for the NFL.
When this season started it would have surprised many to think that Stanley would be facing a decision to leave early or not. He came into his junior season off a solid sophomore year where he started every game at right tackle. In his first gig as a starter Stanley was solid but didn’t get much attention with Zack Martin and Chris Watt anchoring the left side of the Irish offensive line enroute to NFL paychecks.
In 2014, however, Stanley stepped into the spotlight when he moved over to the starting left tackle position Martin held strong for the previous four years. Despite some struggles on the interior of the line, Stanley has stood out as one of the few bright spots prior to Tuesday’s dominant performance over LSU when the offensive line finally played at a level it was expected to play at all season.
If Stanley were to return, Notre Dame has the potential for an elite offensive line in 2014. With a return from Stanley, all five starters from the line that paved the way for 263 rushing yards over the LSU defense on Tuesday will be back and with some of the talented underclassmen waiting in the wings, there won’t be a lack of competition in spring and fall camps.
That young depth is also why the Irish could potentially survive the loss of Stanley should he decide to leave early for the NFL. Mike McGlinchey made his first career start in the Music City Bowl and more than held his own. If anything most people were asking why McGlinchey hadn’t been starting earlier. Behind McGlinchey Notre Dame has freshmen Quenten Nelson and Alex Bars waiting in the wings. Bars was described by Kelly as “one of the best I’ve seen in 25 years,” in the lead up to the MUsic City Bowl. He would add, “He’s that good. Those guys ought to be nervous about whose job he’s going to take. He’s that good of a player.” Either one could be ready for a starting role in 2015 if given the opportunity.
Then there’s junior to be Steve Elmer. The Michigan native was originally recruited as a tackle before moving to guard out of necessity. Elmer struggled as a sophomore, but still possesses immense talent and potential and could slide back to tackle if it were to give Notre Dame the best starting five potentially.
While the Irish have the talent and depth to withstand the loss of Stanley, they would certainly be better off with Stanley returning for another season to anchor an offensive line that could pave the way for a top notch offense. We got a glimpse of what an offense led by Malik Zaire might look like on Tuesday against LSU and if that’s any indication, the 2015 Notre Dame offense could be pretty damn fun to watch.
Where Notre Dame could potentially use Stanley the most, however, is in the leadership department. Brian Kelly noted on Tuesday night that Stanley was very vocal in firing up the troops before Tuesday’s tilt with LSU. “Ronnie today was extremely vocal and kind of lit a fire under everybody today. Kind of charged up everybody, and Ronnie’s not a big talker and it just seemed to elevated everybody’s play on the offensive line,” said Kelly on Tuesday.
Notre Dame struggled in the leadership department over the last couple of seasons after losing a core group of natural leaders following the 2012 season when Manti Te’o, Kapron Lewis Moore, and Theo Riddick all graduated. Whatever Stanley did on Tuesday certainly had everyone fired up. If he can carry that over to 2015 – assuming he returns – he would be a strong contender for a captain role.
Underclassmen have until January 15th to declare for the draft so Stanley has some time to decide what he will do. Sheldon Day, meanwhile, will reportedly be coming back for his senior season after receiving a “stay in school” grade from the Committee. Hopefully for the sake of the 2015 Fighting Irish offense Notre Dame goes two for two in NFL decisions a year after getting ravaged by the early departures of Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas, Louis Nix (5th year available), and George Atkinson.