Brian Kelly will return the most experienced offensive line of his Notre Dame tenure.
When Ronnie Stanley announced his intentions to return for his senior year on Tuesday – just two days before the deadline for underclassmen to make the NFL Draft jump – it ensured the Irish would bring back one of the nation’s more veteran fronts with four starters and 81 career starts.
Stanley’s decision also runs counter to last off-season when Notre Dame lost juniors Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas to the draft. Both went in the second round, about where the offensive tackle would have been projected.
"This was a difficult decision," Stanley said in a statement. "My dream isn't just to play in the National Football League. I want to win a national championship. I've waited to this point so I could watch the actual game and see if I felt any emotion, and I felt a great deal. I am a competitor. I want to play on the top stage so I've decided that I'm returning to Notre Dame for my senior year.”
A source told Irish Illustrated that Stanley had received a second round grade from the NFL’s advisory committee for underclassmen. Defensive tackle Sheldon Day received a “stay in school” grade and took that advice on Saturday in announcing his return.
Minus Stanley, the Irish would have lost a prototype left tackle just scratching the surface of his talent after switching sides last off-season to replace Zack Martin. After a red-shirt season in 2012, Stanley has started 26 straight games and developed into a top NFL prospect in the process despite missing time in multiple off-seasons with injury.
“A lot of people go to college with the intention of coming out after three years, so when they go into school they’re ready for this,” father Ronnie Stanley Sr. told Irish Illustrated last week. “We knew (a draft decision) was going to happen eventually, but we didn’t think it would happen so soon. Playing two years, all of a sudden, bam, you’re on the radar.”
Stanley Sr. said his son is on track to earn his degree next December.
With Stanley back, Notre Dame returns 81 career starts on the offensive line and four bona fide starters along with Nick Martin, Steve Elmer and Matt Hegarty. Only right tackle Christian Lombard departs, although he gave way to Mike McGlinchey in the Music City Bowl due to a bulging disc in his back.
Notre Dame was already set to bring back its starting quarterback, running back and entire receiving corps. Now four starters are back on the offensive line too, giving Notre Dame the kind of platform in the trenches to make a College Football Playoff run.
"Ronnie has developed into a premier offensive lineman," Kelly said in a statement. "With another year at the position, and gaining more knowledge under the outstanding coaching of Harry Hiestand, Ronnie could be the best tackle in all of college football.
"I know this decision wasn't an easy one for him, but, as his coach, I'm proud of the manner in which he handled it. He's matured so much since he first arrived on campus, and this is just another example. Ronnie now has a chance to leave Notre Dame as both a graduate and first-round NFL pick."
For the sake of comparison, Kelly’s best Notre Dame teams have also been his most experienced on the offensive line.
The Irish brought back 78 career line starts during the nine-win season of 2013 and 67 during the BCS Championship Game run.
Notre Dame returned 63 offensive line starts in Kelly’s second season that ended in the Champs Sports Bowl. The Irish returned just 36 in 2010 after removing Dan Wenger from the equation due to concussions. Last season Notre Dame brought back 54 career starts up front and just one multi-year starter.
That means the Irish are 21-5 in seasons when they return 65 or more career starts on the offensive line and just 24-15 when bringing back less. Minus Stanley, Notre Dame would have been under that threshold. With him, the Irish are comfortably over it.
"We've got a chance to have a special season next year,” Stanley said. “Many of my teammates are returning and I've made strong bonds with lots of them. If all of them weren't coming back this year it would've made it an easier decision to leave. All this, the opportunity to graduate, and much more, led to my decision to stay."