Notre Dame doesn’t need to wait for next year anymore.
When Ronnie Stanley announced his return to Notre Dame on Tuesday, following roommate Sheldon Day, it completed the program’s bridge between last season and the next one. That construction project is now open for the traffic of expectations, hype and promise of making the College Football Playoff.
The departures of Stanley or Day would have irreparably damaged the one narrative that kept Notre Dame sane between the offensive pass interference penalty at Florida State and the game-winning field goal against LSU. The defensive duct tape, the mathematically challenged two-point conversion, the quarterback regression, it was made tolerable only by the promise of something better coming.
With Stanley and Day back, that something just arrived.
Their returns give Kelly his two best linemen at positions that can power Notre Dame into a better postseason than Pinstripe, Sun, Champs Sports or Music City. Now the Irish have the muscle to enhance that game plan good enough to beat LSU and lethal enough to make a run at everybody on this season’s slate, regardless of who’s taking the snaps.
Last year Notre Dame brought back just 65 career starts spread among its offensive and defensive lines. Losing Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, never mind Troy Niklas, all but guaranteed that Brian Kelly would spend the season trying to whip the football around by making it all about the quarterback.
Now Notre Dame will return 141 career starts spread between both lines, which should give Kelly the freedom to let Everett Golson and Malik Zaire compete without putting the season’s fate on either.
All five starters from the offensive line’s best performance return when it rolled LSU in the Music City Bowl to 263 yards rushing and four total touchdowns. It was the most the Irish have hit the end zone against a Top 10 scoring defense under Kelly, despite a first-time starter at quarterback.
The only rushing performances better against Power 5 conference teams under Kelly came against Purdue in 2011 and Miami during the BCS National Championship Game run. Those rush defenses were misnomers. LSU held Alabama to 3.6 yards per carry.
If Kelly can commit to the run-first approach that helped expose the SEC West as just good instead of epically great, he’ll have the group up front to do it. A committed Stanley, a healthy Nick Martin, an improving Mike McGlinchey, etc., should give the Irish their best offensive line under Kelly, top to bottom.
The ceiling of that line probably won’t match Zack Martin, but the floor should be the highest of the past six years. It’s a line without a weak link, something the Irish couldn’t even say during the national title game run.
For Stanley, coming back means an apprenticeship as much as a senior year. The knock on the power forward of a left tackle has been his willingness to work, dating back to high school. At Bishop Gorman he learned to love the weight room instead of being naturally addicted to it. That’s been the case at Notre Dame too.
Part of Stanley’s decision-making process included talking to Martin, who advised his replacement that there’s no handholding in the NFL. Either you work hard or you get replaced. Martin was naturally wired to work. Now he’s in the Pro Bowl. Stanley can still upgrade his circuitry, increasing his draft position in the process.
A source told Irish Illustrated that Stanley received a second round grade from the NFL’s committee that advises underclassmen on draft jumps. Day received a “stay in school” grade. Combined with being one semester from graduation, that seemed to make coming back a no-brainer. It wasn’t that easy, with the Irish getting an assist from Day’s family on the return.
What Notre Dame needs from Day, beyond his quick first step, is a voice in the meeting room similar to Kapron Lewis-Moore. Both have been captains at a personality-heavy position. Lewis-Moore had Tuitt and Nix to guide. Day has Jarron Jones to go with nearly a dozen freshmen and sophomores.
Regardless of whether or not Day captains next year’s defense – probably alongside a healthy Joe Schmidt – he will be the line’s conscience. Notre Dame’s staff can’t keep that group locked in without an ally in the meeting rooms. Day will be that voice.
Notre Dame’s defensive line won’t be Kelly’s best, but it can build on the Florida State performance instead of being dragged down the field by Leonard Fournette. A group with scant experience to start last season relied on freshmen by the end of it.
When Notre Dame begins winter conditioning and jumps into spring practice, it can now fully leave last season behind. The returns of Stanley and Day give Brian Kelly that kind of foundation to push forward, toward the College Football Playoff.
No more wait until next year.
Next year just started.