After 52 straight starts, dozens of vanquished foes and a four-year career with a mere handful of missed assignments, Zack Martin’s departure from Notre Dame significantly impacts the productivity of the 2014 offensive line.
Few newcomers to the left tackle position - which is where red-shirt sophomore Ronnie Stanley finds himself this spring - are as qualified to follow in the footsteps of one of Notre Dame’s all-time greats.
Stanley is one of them.
After an impressive debut season at right tackle, starting all 13 games and taking virtually every snap for the nine-win Irish, Stanley is being asked to pop over to the left side where Martin has left a wake of success and dominance.
“I know it’s a big responsibility filling in for a guy like Zack,” said the 6-foot-6, 318-pounder out of Las Vegas. “I know I have big shoes to fill, but I’ve always played to the best of my ability and I’m not going to change the way I play now.
“I didn’t ask (to play left tackle). I would play wherever my coach wanted me to play, wherever he sees fit for me. It wasn’t really a big thing (switching to) the position, but I know it’s a big responsibility.”
Protector of the proverbial blindside of right-handed quarterbacks, Stanley has had to make some subtle adjustments. He’s gotten past the awkward stage of adapting to a left-handed stance. With Steve Elmer jumping from right to left guard, Stanley has his late-season tag-team partner next to him.
Give Stanley a bit of time to adjust and there’s very little the former basketball standout can’t do.
“He’s extremely athletic for a big fellow,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “He uses his arm length to his advantage. He’s a really good athlete. He’s a really good basketball player, too, (from) a very talented team in high school.
“He kind of has that awareness, in a sense, in that he can really get his body in position and knows where the quarterback is. He’s just got a really good sense of the pocket and has a good feel in pass protection.”
If there’s a rap against Stanley, it’s that the big-as-a-building junior-to-be can be a gentle giant, both in the interview room, which is refreshing, but also on the football field, where it can be a detriment.
“For Ronnie, we’d like to see him continue to work on being more physical,” Kelly said.
Stanley had few glitches in his debut season. He was part of a unit - and a capable complement to Martin on the edge - that allowed just eight sacks over a 13-game schedule.
Could Stanley have played a more physical brand of football as a run blocker? Undoubtedly, but there were few recallable instances of Stanley being overpowered at the point of attack. He is, in a word, massive. When he walks into a room, the overwhelming size is striking. What Jarron Jones is to the Irish defense in terms of sheer size, Stanley is that to the offense, only larger.
Now mix in the athleticism of a basketball player and you have a truly special talent.
“Basketball was my No. 1 sport probably until my sophomore or junior year of high school,” said the Bishop Gorman High School product. “It’s always been a big help to me while playing football. It’s helped me move my feet quick and be really smooth while I’m sliding.
“Basketball will always be my first love. No coach ever influenced my decision. I saw more of a future in football. That was a self-realization. I wanted to see how good I could get.”
Stanley has scratched the surface and then some. After one season in the Notre Dame lineup, it’s already difficult to picture Stanley playing for the Irish through the 2016 season. But that’s how long he’d be around Notre Dame if he were to use his remaining eligibility. The Irish will be fortunate if he plays through the ’15 campaign. He’ll be draft eligible after the 2014 season.
That’s relatively far from Stanley’s mind at the present time. He remains in the day-to-day process of progress.
“I would say I improved progressively throughout the (2013) season,” Stanley said. “Every game, I did a little better so that by the end of the season, I thought I was a pretty good tackle. Now I’m looking forward to improving in the off-season and just becoming a better tackle and a better leader.”
Stanley is not the type to experience anxiety on the gridiron. Even in his first season in the Irish lineup, he approached his first starting call on the collegiate level with a worry-free approach.
Stanley is a combination of overwhelming size with the discipline not to allow his upper body to get ahead of his lower body. It is rare to see him impatiently lunge at a defender, staying controlled and balanced, which makes blocking the 318-pounder an ordeal.
“It was hard at first starting the season. I wasn’t used to the length of the game,” Stanley said.
“But I was pretty comfortable in the starting lineup. I’m usually aware in situations. I don’t get real startled by anything. I can get hyped up, but I’m not too nervous normally. Just being competitive was probably my biggest attribute.”
That patience will pay dividends this fall when he’s protecting Everett Golson’s blind side.
“I see it being more detrimental to the quarterback if I mess up,” said Stanley of his shift to left tackle. “I wouldn’t say it’s any more important than the other four positions. The only difference is the (right-handed) quarterback can’t see my guy if my guy beats me.
“It hasn’t put any (additional) burden on me. It’s always block to my ability. Moving from right tackle to left isn’t going to make me block any harder. I’m always blocking the best that I can.”
He does, however, feel the sense of urgency in replacing a true professional like Martin.
“I need to step up and be more of a leader for the younger guys because we do have a young line right now,” Stanley said. “Not so much that he left, but me being one of the most experienced guys right now and me taking over a position held down by a great player like Zack Martin makes you feel accountable.”
Ultimately, it comes down to five working as one.
“We make sure we see things through one set of eyes,” Stanley said. “That’s our motto. Our chemistry is pretty good right now. We just need to get more technically-sound, which comes with experience.”
Stanley’s first-year experience should make the transition to left tackle easier. So should a full toolbox of talent.