Analysis: What OG Quenton Nelson's return means for Notre Dame's 2017 offense
Quenton Nelson has Brian Kelly’s back.
Notre Dame’s 6-foot-5, 325-pound junior behemoth took to Instagram on Sunday to confirm what many had already assumed:
He’ll return to South Bend for his senior season in 2017.
“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together,” Nelson posted, his text accompanied by photos of the Irish offensive line and his embattled eighth-year head coach. “When we reach our full potential, look out. I'm right behind you Coach.”
More importantly, consider who Nelson’s standing in front of, as well as beside. In the wake of the premature departures of Irish quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, junior Brandon Wimbush will be handed the reins this fall.
Behind Wimbush? That’s where things get tricky.
A highly touted 6-foot-1, 225-pound soon-to-be junior, Wimbush is one of just three scholarship quarterbacks projected on Notre Dame’s 2017 roster. The others are sophomore Ian Book and freshman Avery Davis.
Together, the untested trio shares a grand total of zero collegiate starts.
Wimbush is more than capable, but Notre Dame can’t afford to test its quarterback depth. Thankfully, its offensive line contains two players that some considered potential first round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft: Nelson and senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey, who also opted to return.
“You look at the guards, and with the way (Nelson) plays and the aggressiveness he shows and the consistency from week to week, I thought he would be little more dominant in some games than he was, but he’s a good football player,” ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Nelson last month.
“He’s the best guard in a class that’s not bad, actually. Overall, if he came out, I still think he’d be in the late first, early second-round mix. If he goes back he can go a little higher. By going back (to Notre Dame), he can upgrade his stock.”
Nelson’s return effectively upgrades the stock of the entire Irish offensive line. Take what might be the most physical left side of any line in college football, plus returning starting center Sam Mustipher and right tackle Alex Bars as well as ascending options like junior Tristen Hoge and sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, and what do you get?
Experience. Depth. Healthy competition.
And hopefully, plenty of improvement.
Six months ago, the plan for Notre Dame’s 2016 offense was set. Without the services of departed Irish wide receivers Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle, Kizer and Co. would lean on their running game to set the tone. Running backs Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams would reap the rewards behind a dominant, merciless offensive line.
“No matter what happens, we're running the football,” Kelly said last fall in the week leading up to the season opener against Texas.
The plan, of course, didn’t resemble the eventual reality. The offensive line — and the offense, and the team — underperformed. Notre Dame averaged just 163.3 rushing yards per game last season, more than 40 yards fewer than its 2015 total (207.9 rushing yards per game). The Irish finished 80th nationally in rushing and 62nd in yards per carry, managing 4.5 yards per attempt. They also surrendered 28 sacks, which ranked 85th and marked Notre Dame’s worst showing in that category since the 3-9 Irish finished dead last (119th) and allowed a then-NCAA-record 58 sacks in 2007.
Now, it’s Nelson and McGlinchey’s job to make sure Notre Dame’s offensive line avoids a sequel. Both players were named 2017 team captains at the annual Echoes awards banquet in December, and their leadership will be needed to push their unit forward when winter conditioning begins under newly appointed strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis this month.
Notre Dame’s 2017 offense will feature at least 10 offensive linemen that garnered four- or five-star recruiting rankings from both Rivals and 247Sports, all of whom are coached by one of the most respected offensive line coaches in the country in Harry Hiestand. It will tout a wealth of running back talent, led by Adams, Williams, sophomore Tony Jones Jr. and early enrollee freshman C.J. Holmes. It will center around Wimbush, the most pure dual-threat quarterback Kelly has had in his seven-plus seasons in South Bend.
Nelson may be the most physically imposing piece in an impressive offensive puzzle.
But the optics aren’t enough. It’s time to see results.