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Ronnie Stanley returns to Notre Dame better than ever; Week 1 Walkthrough

Physical freak Ronnie Stanley could have gone to the NFL this year. Instead, he’s in the best shape of his career and ready to drive Notre Dame to greatness.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For one spring only, Ronnie Stanley was a football player who also played basketball who also moonlighted as a volleyball player. Several members of the Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High hoops squad decided to give bumps and sets a try after their 2010­–11 season, theorizing the game would help them be lighter on their feet and enhance their jumping ability. Stanley was among them.

Thus the greater Las Vegas prep volleyball scene was introduced to a middle hitter who weighed 280 pounds give or take, although this sounds more petrifying than it was in practice. Many local teams had systems featuring crisp passing and cohesion built through repetition over time. Bishop Gorman had some novices. Rather large novices, but novices nonetheless.

“At first I was hitting the net every time, jumping into it,” Stanley says. “We just relied on our athleticism. We weren’t really good volleyball players. There wasn’t much ‘system’ going on.”

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Years later, Stanley is recalling all of this in a Notre Dame football complex auditorium as a preseason All-America on an offensive line that could power a College Football Playoff push. His participation in other sports was spiked long ago, but some satisfaction with the volleyball adventure remains. It’s not because that Bishop Gorman club in fact made the playoffs, inexperience notwithstanding. No, the lasting satisfaction is this: Ronnie Stanley was a human coveted mostly for squashing other humans. He then wanted to be a volleyball player. And, just like that, he became a dang volleyball player, and he managed it all with relative aplomb.

There are reasons why the Fighting Irish’s starting left tackle may be the first player to shake the commissioner’s hand at the NFL draft in April. The most convincing one: Stanley’s ability to do more than anyone could reasonably expect from someone built like that. “He is quick, surprisingly,” Notre Dame receiver Corey Robinson says. “He’s strong. He runs well. Ronnie is one of those guys, athletically, I just don’t understand.”

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It won’t be the primary context this fall, but the Irish’s season is, in some way, about putting the finishing touches on a No. 1 overall pick. Merely getting drafted, and drafted early, was a given for Stanley last spring. A 6'5 1/2", 315-pound nimble left tackle is an NFL executive’s dream. While the stated rationale for returning for his final season is standard and valid—win a title, get a degree—there was the complementary mission of building Stanley’s body in a fundamental way that a professional team might not, while amplifying his physicality to the level that an NFL club will expect from the start.

It’s why a handful of men flew to Las Vegas last winter, armed with a plan to put Ronnie Stanley precisely where he wanted to be.

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When Juli Stanley picked up her son after a Music City Bowl win and a four-hour flight from Chicago last December, she found him to be carrying more than luggage. Mom, I just don’t know what to do, Ronnie Stanley told his mother on the ride home. Agents had been calling since midseason; the January early-entry deadline loomed.

A supportive Juli assured Ronnie that the best decision would come to him in time. She did not know, at that moment, that Notre Dame would come to him first, in the form of a party including head coach Brian Kelly, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Their intent: to tell the future. “It’s a long season, anything can happen,” Stanley says. “I was worried about the unknowable.”

After ordering in some deli sandwiches, the Stanleys absorbed something like an infomercial. Kelly mentioned how special he thought the 2015 season could be. Swarbrick asked Stanley if he’d had the comprehensive Notre Dame experience he expected. The group laid out Stanley’s academic schedule; his major, management entrepreneurship, would be reclassified after this year, but Stanley was assured that none of the classes he needed to graduate would be phased out.

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Hiestand, who had a stint coaching the Chicago Bears’ line from 2005 to ’09, reiterated a point he’d made previously to Stanley, underscoring the value of graduating: All the people talking about NFL money don’t mention that you have to block professional edge rushers first. “They don’t pay you before you do all that,” Hiestand says. “When you prove you can do that, then maybe you don’t have to have jobs later in life. But it’s a small number that it works wonderfully for.”

As for Stanley’s concern about another off-season and season of wear on his body, Longo framed the discussion differently. Stanley didn’t redshirt as a freshman, so he’d only had two full cycles of college training, with a couple nagging injuries to work around. One more year of heavy weight training would build a physical base, especially in his lower body, that Stanley then would maintain after college. “The pro level is not a developmental league,” Longo says. “This year was a big growth year. It’s like putting on one coat of paint a day. Finally, after a while, you look and the thing is starting to cover all the way through now.”

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In one off-season, Stanley increased his 225-pound bench press repetitions from 18 to 23. His max bench jumped 40 pounds (365 to 405), his max squat leaped 50 pounds (550 to 600) and his body fat is now 20%—a four-percentage-point drop in a year and a seven-percentage-point drop from when he first arrived, essentially equating to losing 20 pounds of fat and gaining 20 pounds of muscle over time. Stanley’s vertical leap is now 30 inches, too. He is outfitted with what Longo calls more “mature muscle mass,” which should permit him to play at a high level for longer.

Though to be safe he did not officially postpone the NFL leap until he left Las Vegas and returned to South Bend for classes—to inform his mother, he sent Juli a one-line text that read I’m staying in school—the plan has come together since that December confab in the desert.

“Everything that’s happened is what I expected,” Stanley says.

And now Notre Dame can expect a left tackle with an unsurpassed combination of polish, athleticism and force of will.

That fervor bubbled to the surface in the locker room before the Music City Bowl, when Stanley verbally unleashed upon his teammates, demanding that they view a physical LSU team not as an opponent but as an enemy. If they weren’t ready to measure up, Stanley told them to leave. He didn’t care. He wanted something primal from the Irish, and at least offensively, he got enough for 263 yards rushing and a 31–28 win.

Such a fiercely uncompromising burst seemed unusual for Stanley. It was far from inexplicable. When his late maternal grandmother, Telusila, grew frustrated during athletic events, she’d begin shouting at her children or grandchildren in Tongan, her native tongue. “I’m not sure it was cheering them on,” Juli Stanley says.

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Once, when Ronnie ran the wrong way during a grade school football game, an exasperated Telusila turned her chair around and sat with her back to the field. Juli Stanley, not falling far from the family tree, continued the tradition of expecting accountability. She once bought Ronnie’s brother dinner at a drive-through after a game—but not Ronnie, whose effort she deemed substandard.

“I always think in my mind that Ronnie can run and do anything a person half his size can do,” Juli Stanley says. “It’s my competitive nature. Times when I don’t believe they have given 200% are the times that a loss is not acceptable to me.”

If there is an uptick in Stanley’s physicality in 2015—and Hiestand says he’s seen one this off-season—tapping into a more feral side might be the root cause. “I wasn’t sure if they were ready for how real I get when I’m in a game,” Stanley says of his Music City Bowl pregame screed. “It gets really real at that point. Like, to a fundamental point, where this isn’t football. This is survival. I’m not even playing. I’m just fighting. It gets kind of savage.”

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His enduring advantage, though, will be the uncommon athleticism and capacity to cover space. His short-area footwork reminds Longo of Joe Staley, the four-time Pro Bowl lineman for the San Francisco 49ers. In an impromptu competition to see who could tap-dance through a ladder drill faster over the summer, Stanley left defensive lineman Sheldon Day perplexed. “I was kind of upset, like, ‘Is he supposed to be moving this fast?’” Day says.

Stanley is consistent and strong enough with his hands—getting them inside rushers more often than not—that defenders must outrace him or get him off-balance. His agility essentially precludes that possibility; Stanley allowed one sack in 2014.

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“If he gets his hands on you, you can’t win—at all,” Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith says. “You have to have a great get-off. And any time you slip up, he’s going to make you pay for it. You have like 2.2 seconds to get to the quarterback before the ball is thrown. He gets his hands on you, there’s not much you can do.”

This is Ronnie Stanley at the core: ensuring you cannot do anything at all, while he does anything he wants. During one Notre Dame preseason practice open to the media, safety Max Redfield intercepted a Malik Zaire pass and sprinted up the sideline for a return. Stanley took an angle and caught Redfield 50 yards down the field. In the Irish’s spring game, perhaps as a permissible extra benefit for returning to school, Kelly called Stanley’s number on a trick play just before the half in which the left tackle caught a throwback pass—and then gained 13 yards after the grab.

Stanley notes he’d be a far bigger receiving threat without his knee braces—“I’m past everything else, I’m worried about the open field,” he says—and he is very much not kidding. Nothing terrifies Notre Dame’s left tackle more than the idea of plodding along like most 300-pound people plod along. Nothing delights him more than doing things people do not expect him to do, imposing upon them a suspension of disbelief. In a sense, this is a skill inherent to his job.

“You’re seeing a guy back up while somebody runs full speed at him, and you’re trying to stop him,” Stanley says of playing tackle. “That’s, like, not even supposed to happen with human movement.”

He was as equipped as anyone to manage it last year. Now he has followed a plan laid out in December all the way to Saturday in the Irish’s opener against Texas, and he’s more equipped than before, believe it or not.


The Showdown

Each week, The Walkthrough will talk to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. For Week 1, it’s Texas A&M against Arizona State with the Aggies’ Kyle Allen entering his first season as the full-time starter facing the Sun Devils’ kinetic defense Saturday in Houston.

Jake Spavital, Texas A&M offensive coordinator/QB coach: “You can tell [Allen’s] more poised than he’s ever been. And that’s just a familiarity with the system. He doesn’t look at me sideways at times when I signal a play from the sideline—he understands what I’m talking about and what I’m trying to accomplish. I can’t call perfect plays. You have to have that faith and trust in those kids to get you in the right look. That separated him from the competition early—he knew how to manage the game and manage the personnel changes. They’re going to give him a bunch of looks. A bunch of looks. They’re going to test him and try to get to him and see how accurate he is, and how he can think on the run.”

Chris Ball, Arizona State co-defensive coordinator: “We think [Allen] brings a lot to the table—he’s got a great arm, he’s smart, he’s more athletic than what you think he is. He’s going to be one of the better quarterbacks we see this year. He knows when to throw the ball, he throws to the back shoulder very well, he seems to have a great chemistry with the wideouts. He’s going to be capable of everything they ask him to do and then some. We’ll see something we haven’t seen, we’ll see something we haven’t prepared for. As far as we’re concerned, he’s got the full playbook and understands it. We’re going to do what we do. We can cover, too. We can pressure you, but we can also cover. We’re going to play our defense and do what we do.”

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•​ Michigan at Utah: Harbaugh Harbaugh Harbaugh Harbaugh [breath] [Utah has Devontae Booker plus a formidable front seven, so it’s the better team] [deep breath] Harbaugh Harbaugh Harbaugh Harbaugh.

•​ TCU at Minnesota: After playing two games outside of Texas during the 2014 regular season—we’re not even mad, that’s amazing—Trevone Boykin and the Horned Frogs can make a statement in Minneapolis against a solid Gophers defense.

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• Michigan State at Western Michigan: In late July, Mark Dantonio said this of the Spartans’ early schedule: “We’ll find out a little about ourselves in every game.” If thoughts of Oregon vengeance in Week 2 creep in early, P.J. Fleck’s budding program could threaten.

• Baylor at SMU: The Sam Ukwuachu sexual assault conviction issue isn’t going away, but it’s difficult to envision an on-field impact for Bears players. And first-year Mustangs coach Chad Morris doesn’t have the ponies yet to keep up.

•​ Washington at Boise State: Chris Petersen returns to the place where he won 92 games, but it will be tough to find success with a new starting QB (possibly true freshman Jake Browning) and facing an opponent that brings back 17 starters.

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•​ Stanford at Northwestern: Will we see the Kevin Hogan that was 45-of-59 passing in his last three games of 2014? If so, the Cardinal can secure a nice road win over a Northwestern team breaking in redshirt freshman QB Clayton Thorson.

• Virginia at UCLA: The early week arrest and indefinite suspension of starting cornerback Ishmael Adams put a damper on the Bruins’ preseason mojo, but all eyes are on true freshman QB Josh Rosen anyway.

• Louisville vs. Auburn (in Atlanta): The Cardinals’ 3.15 sacks allowed per game ranked 114th in the country last year. And then they lost three starters on the offensive line. Auburn would like new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to take advantage of this.

• Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (in Houston): Aggies QB Kyle Allen could be a breakout star, but can we talk about the Sun Devils as a playoff contender? There’s a proven QB (Mike Bercovici), a stud skill guy (D.J. Foster) and they get USC, Oregon and Arizona at home. A win here is a confidence turbo-boost.

• Texas at Notre Dame: Notre Dame’s defense—riddled with injuries by the end—was shredded by spread attacks in the second half of 2014, surrendering 44.8 points per game to North Carolina, Arizona State, Northwestern and Louisville. Texas likely will go with dual-threat Tyrone Swoopes at QB, but another shredding probably won’t happen here.

• Wisconsin vs. Alabama (in Dallas):Corey Clement may be the next Badgers star tailback. He also may have to wait until Week 2 to show it. A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen and their 24.5 combined tackles for loss in 2014 make running the ball against the Crimson Tide a very large issue involving very large, mean-spirited men.

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•​ Ohio State at Virginia Tech: This is as much a statement about the Hokies’ direction as it is the Buckeyes’ viability. Frank Beamer and Co. can’t use the excuse of being young anymore. They must make this game interesting against the not-at-full-strength defending champs.

The hair-raiser

For my first Walkthrough column, I should close by revisiting one of my core beliefs: that the greatest rock anthem/power ballad combo of the 1980s was Cinderella’s “Gypsy Road” and “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone).” The particular triumph of “Gypsy Road” is the utter and inviolable confidence that you can push through the Gypsy Road, even if you have to drive all night, when no one actually knows what in the blue hell a Gypsy Road is.

It’s Week 1. Let’s ride.