A resurgent Notre Dame team looks to solidify its College Football Playoff resume this weekend against No. 7 Miami behind the blocking of future first-round pick Quenton Nelson.
Few teams in college football have enjoyed as sweet of a rebound season as Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish. After an abysmal 4-8 campaign in 2016 and some calling for Kelly’s job, the Irish enter this Saturday’s showdown with rival Miami at 8-1, their lone blemish coming against the current number one team in the country, the Georgia Bulldogs.
One of the biggest reasons for this success has been Notre Dame’s outstanding running game. The Irish enter Week 11 with the fifth-best rushing offense in the country, and three of the teams ahead of them (Army, Navy, Georgia Tech) are option-based attacks. Running the ball for 7.04 yards per carry has been made possible by an offensive line full of NFL talent, led by guard Quenton Nelson.
The Irish’s ground game success has had scouts flocking to South Bend and although they have an offensive tackle in Mike McGlinchey that is likely to have his name called in the first round as well, the senior Nelson continues to soar up draft boards and may end up as a top ten selection come April.
What has scouts and front office personnel so enamored with Nelson as a potential high pick despite playing on the interior of the line? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.
Nonstop motor and production
Nelson came to South Bend as a five-star recruit out of New Jersey and has now played in 31 games in his Fighting Irish career. He would have almost certainly been a first-round pick in the 2017 Draft, and leaving would have been understandable after a 4-8 season, but Nelson opted to stick around and the senior captain now has his team firmly in the College Football Playoff picture.
At 6’5″, 330 pounds Nelson is an absolute monster of a human being and even playing at a high level of FBS competition is truly “a man amongst boys.”
Though Nelson is at guard this season, his likely future position in the NFL, he played left tackle in 2016 following the departure of Ronnie Stanley in the 2016 Draft. Now, with a shift inside and McGlinchey’s move to left tackle, the Irish possess one of the most dominating sides of an offensive line in college football.
If you want an illustration of the type of player Nelson is, look no further than this GIF:
Road grader with a nasty streak
Nelson is as well-rounded as they offensive line prospects come, but his best value comes from his ability to open up massive lanes in the running game. Case in point, this Josh Adams touchdown run against Miami (OH) earlier this year:
Nelson is outstanding in zone blocking concepts in the run game and as shown above, does a great job at turning the shoulders of defenders to open up running lanes. Once he locks on, Nelson’s power and grip strength make it a tall task for any defender trying to shed his block.
He isn’t one to just move you out of the way and be done with you, either. Nelson loves to finish and humiliate opponents, possessing the type of nastiness that is coveted by offensive line coaches everywhere. In fact, he’s been displaying this kind of nasty streak since he was a kid, as Mike Vorel of the South Bend Tribune illustrated in this profile of Nelson for ND Insider:
“When he was 10, he was playing with 12-year-olds and the official came up to me at the end of the first half and said, ‘You have to talk to No. 53. He’s spearing,’ ” Craig Nelson recalled.
“Spearing?” Craig said. “The kid’s 10 years old.”
One of the most impressive things about Nelson’s game is his awareness and understanding of blocking schemes. It’s one thing for a player to have the physical tools for success, but being able to put them into practice can be a whole other story.
One play that will be played likely a million times in other draft profiles of Nelson is the one he made here against Georgia:
That type of awareness undoubtedly has NFL front office executives and scouts drooling, and it’s something that Nelson does on a regular basis. In many of the Irish’s zone pass pro schemes, Nelson always has his head on a swivel looking for potential pocket threats. Perhaps more importantly, his technique and footwork allow him to constantly be in a position to make these types of plays when the time comes. It’s part of the reason why Nelson will be a valuable plug-and-play starter from day one of his NFL career.
If there’s one concern I have about Nelson, it’s that he isn’t a great athlete in space. I know what you’re thinking. A 330-pound man can’t run a 4.4 40-yard dash? Shocking, I know. However, Nelson will at times whiff badly when pulling on the edge and even though he can win the physical matchup with every defender on the field, being able to square up players at the second level and on the edge are still key factors in many NFL running games.
Thankfully, Nelson can find ways to win even if beaten off the snap and does a tremendous job at resetting his feet and anchoring in place when a defender gets underneath him. Being on the interior can limit his exposure to some of the elite, quick-twitch pass rushers but he’ll face a lot more interior athleticism at the next level and he’ll need every bit of that technique and footwork to keep defenders out of the backfield.
Hurricanes in the backfield?
Notre Dame and Miami will always be one of the most storied rivalries in college football and it’ll have some extra significance this weekend, with the loser likely falling out of contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Nelson will play a key role in keeping the Irish offense churning and faces a Hurricanes defense that leads the country in tackles for loss per game. Mark Richt’s squad has five players with at least three sacks on the season, so Nelson and his fellow hogs on the offensive line will certainly have their hands full from every spot on the field.
All in all, in an NFL landscape that continues to see a downtrend in offensive line play, Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson is the type of player who will make an immediate impact from day one for his NFL team. It’s a big reason why despite being an interior player, Nelson will more than likely hear his name called before any other offensive lineman in the 2018 NFL Draft.