Return of Day, Stanley set stage for sixth-ranked Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley were talking while driving home after practice recently about how their lives would have been different if they had entered last spring's NFL draft.
They didn't talk about living more lavish lifestyles as well-paid professional players. They talked about the fun they would have missed while the sixth-ranked Fighting Irish (8-1, No. 4 CFP) pursue their first national championship since 1988.
''He said it would be crazy because we wouldn't be able to experience something like this - just the guys in the locker room and how much fun we're having this season, just being around the guys,'' Day said. ''It's crazy that if we would have went the other way how things would have been much different.''
Coach Brian Kelly said he doesn't know how he could measure the importance of having his most disruptive defensive lineman and steadiest offensive lineman both decide to return.
''They're responsible for so much of our success in that they are arguably our best players and our best leaders,'' he said. ''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.''
Kelly, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, strength coach Paul Longo and player personnel director Dave Peloquin flew to Las Vegas in January to re-recruit the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Stanley and then flew the next day to Indianapolis to make their pitch to the 6-foot-2, 285-pound Day.
They told the pair they should try to earn their degrees and become more complete players. Kelly also told them both they could improve their leadership skills.
The two didn't decide immediately, exchanging texts while trying to decide.
''He told me that his decision rode on my decision. I said, `That's too much pressure for me. Don't do that to me,''' Day said.
Stanley said he wasn't basing his decision solely on what Day planned, but he knew it would be a factor.
''I just knew with him it was going to be a more complete team,'' Stanley said.
The two are looking forward to playing their final game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday against Wake Forest (3-6), whose six seniors are the fewest in the FBS.
Both say they are better football players but say their biggest improvement was becoming more vocal leaders. Center Nick Martin said Stanley has been ''more demanding and more commanding.''
''It's the ultimate team sport, but you have to prepare and play individually and have that performance,'' Martin said. ''So sometimes when you're focusing on yourself, it's hard to make other people around you better. I thought that's where he got out of his shell and he's done a great job this year.''
Linebacker Joe Schmidt said Day leads the entire team.
''He's a driving force in the locker room, in the meeting room, on the practice field and on the playing field,'' he said.
Kelly will wait until after the season to talk to this year's players about NFL possibilities. But receiver Will Fuller didn't need to hear a pitch from the coach, saying Wednesday he plans to return to get his psychology degree. Linebacker Jaylon Smith and running back C.J. Prosise have said they will decide after the season. Stanley, who is eligible to return for a fifth season, said he won't return.
He has no regrets about coming back this year, saying he knew the Irish could contend for a championship.
''I expected to be nowhere else but here,'' he said. ''There's no excuse for why we shouldn't be here.''