FOOTBALL

Quenton Nelson looks like a perfect fit on ND offensive line

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – First impressions are quite important.

The first glance at Quenton Nelson is stunning: This guy’s as big as a house.

At 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, he looks the part of a perfect fit for Notre Dame's offensive line.

Once beyond “awestruck” at first sight, the conversation was much different. Here’s a rising sophomore who has spent the last year in daily hand-to-hand combat with guys like Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, and he looks terribly uncomfortable in front of a couple out-of-shape reporters.

While waiting his chance to finally make an impact, Nelson’s most significant contribution at Notre Dame was winning the chicken wing-eating contest against LSU players at the Music City Bowl. The Irish didn’t want to send any starters into the eating fray, with the game just a couple days away, but Nelson filled in quite well.

He’ll likely be on the sidelines for next year’s post-season eating activities, because Nelson seems destined for a prime-time role at left guard.

“When you're talking about that position itself, the guard position, it's picking up movement,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “We know if you put a guy in front of (Nelson), he's going to win a one-on-one matchup. It's movement; it's the ability to move and adjust when you've got slants and angles and things of that nature (going on). If it's in front of him, he's going to knock that guy out.”

Movement is the advantage Alex Bars, a 6-6, 316-pound rising sophomore, has over Nelson.

“It's the ability to move and redirect, because Alex Bars is really good at that; he's really nimble and moves his feet well,” Kelly said. “We wanted to see Nelson continue to improve. That's where he's gotten better each and every week. His greatest improvement through this spring has been in pass protection more than anything else.”

“Coming in, I was projected as a tackle,” Nelson said. “I played some tackle (last) summer. Then, sometime during the season, they moved me inside to guard.

“At tackle, you have to slide (to pick up your man). At guard, you have someone right in front of you; tight and up close. It’s more like a battle.

“I felt good at tackle. At guard, I have someone (on the defensive line) right in front of me. In pass (protection), you get your hands on someone really quick.”

In an effort to enhance his hand quickness, Nelson said he took classes in the martial arts.

“Physically, I’ve cut down my body fat,” he said. “(I’ve improved) my technique; playing lower; hands inside, elbows in; and starting the fight with your hands in pass (protection).”

A second-team USA Today high school All-American from Holmdell, N.J., Nelson wasn’t the least bit surprised that he didn’t see the field during the 2014 season.

“I’m pretty humble,” he said. “I understood there were guys ahead of me who were better than me. I knew I had a lot of room to grow. I did, and I still have a lot of improvement to make.”

The improvement was such that Nelson took a significant step forward this spring. Matt Hegarty and Conor Hanratty each had a year of eligibility left, but saw the future coming on fast and departed.

“Quenton’s one guy you want on your side,” said grad student center Nick Martin. “If you tell him to run through a wall, he’s going to do it.

“(The veterans have to) help lead by example. If he sees us do the right thing, he’ll do the right thing.”

“We have a great group,” Nelson said of the offensive line. “We’re just one big group. It’s just fun to be around the guys.

“Everyone is worried about the guy next to them, and not themselves. That was surprising. Ronnie (Stanley), Hunter (Bivin), and Mike (McGlinchey), and everyone on the offensive line has helped me and the other freshmen in a big way.”

Those freshmen are the future. The stockpile seems to be pretty solid.

Especially at first glance.

Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson (56) and Alex Bars (71), the two candidates at left guard, go head to head in a practice drill recently at the LaBar Practice Complex. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)