How Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson evolved into the nation's most feared offensive lineman

Trucking the road less traveled

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Quenton Nelson was always big, but he wanted to be small.

To prove a point, Craig Nelson used to hold up a piece of paper in front of his sons, Connor and Quenton.

“These are all the kids playing rec and Pop Warner football,” he’d say.

Then Craig would tear the paper in half and drop one piece to the floor.

“OK, these are the guys playing in high school.”

Then he’d tear off another, significantly smaller piece, and drop the rest.

“These are the people that are going to play in college.”

Then he’d tear off a sliver of a scrap of paper, so small you could barely see it.

“These are the guys that are going to play at the professional level,” Craig would tell them. “Do you understand?”

***

Quenton Nelson weighed 10 pounds, 10 ounces at birth.

That was just the beginning.

When he was younger, Quenton was forced to lose 20 pounds each summer, just to be eligible to play Pop Warner football … with kids two or three years older. Picture a 10-year-old Quenton piercing a thick Holmdel, N.J., heat, his shirt soaked in sweat, trudging through the cross-country courses at nearby Holmdel Park.

Every day, every summer, year after year after year.

Quenton was born tough, and made tougher. His father, Craig, was the youngest of six kids. His mother, Maryellen, was the youngest of six kids. Quenton was the youngest of four.

“We’ve got 39 nieces and nephews, and they’re all tough kids,” Craig Nelson said. “He’s the youngest of all 39. So he took a lot, but he was always a very competitive kid.”

That was most evident, perhaps, on the basketball court. If they had free time, the Nelson clan — all six of them — spent it at the park near their house, playing 3-on-3. And in all the years they played, the teams never changed. It was Craig, Kaylynn (the oldest daughter) and Quenton against Maryellen, Connor and the family’s youngest daughter, Shannon.

It was fathers against daughters, brothers against sisters, mothers against sons.

It was a civil war — ruthless, and not for the faint of heart.

“There was always someone on the cement,” Craig Nelson said. “My wife took a charge and broke her wrist, and we were arguing all the way to the hospital about whether her feet were still moving or not.”

It may have been developed on a basketball court, but Quenton’s impressive footwork paid dividends everywhere else. He was the goalie on his travel soccer team — a rolling boulder in front of the net.

As for football?

“He was one of the bigger kids and he was playing up with the older kids,” said Joe McAuliffe, Quenton’s former strength coach. “I remember Craig saying, ‘This is my youngest.’

“I watched his footwork through the drills, and I was like, ‘Oh. Boy.’ ”

Quenton carried his weight like a balletic grizzly bear, a bizarre blend of grace and power. In Pop Warner, alongside his offensive line duties, he also played middle linebacker. Quenton relayed the calls, then sprinted sideline-to-sideline, chasing down players that were two or three years older.

Not that they looked two or thee years older.

“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.”

The referee didn’t believe him, and really, could you blame him?

“Third play from scrimmage, he hits this running back,” recalled Tony Balzofiore, Quenton’s Pop Warner coach and a family friend. “I thought this kid was dead. Straight up, I thought he killed him.”

***

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

Those words, clipped off the end of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” appear prominently on the profile pages of Quenton Nelson’s social media accounts.

Not by accident, either.

Because, to be clear, Nelson — ranked as a five-star prospect by Rivals out of Red Bank Catholic High School in 2014 — could have attended college wherever he wanted. He could have played for Michigan State, the school he rooted for as a kid. He could have opted for Miami or Nebraska or Oklahoma or Alabama.

He could have committed to Boston College or Penn State, two regional favorites that promised immediate playing time.

But he chose Notre Dame.

He chose the long, hard road — the risk, and the reward.

He chose the challenge.

“They already had (Alex) Bars, (Sam) Mustipher, (Jimmy) Byrne committed. These were all good players,” Craig Nelson said. “I told him, ‘There’s eight upperclassmen you have to beat out. You may be sitting an awfully long time at Notre Dame.’

“He said, ‘Dad, if I can’t start there, then my dream for the NFL is moot.’ ”

Quenton Nelson pinned a promise to the back of his bedroom door.

“I’m going to start as a redshirt freshman at Notre Dame.”

“He did it,” Craig Nelson said, “and that was that.”

***

Joe McAuliffe wants to tell you about two people.

Both are Quenton Nelson.

“He has the enormous hands and the enormously long arms with the wide shoulders,” said McAuliffe, who started training Quenton in the eighth grade. “It’s like looking at two people when you’re looking at him, he’s so wide side-to-side.”

Craig Nelson made sure to emphasize that frame — that battering ram of a body — when Quenton took his first unofficial visit to Notre Dame before earning a scholarship offer.

“I remember going out and buying him all of the dry fit shirts a size smaller,” Craig Nelson said. “I bought them in the color (of the schools) we were visiting. “We had a purple one for Northwestern and a crimson one for Ohio State and a kelly green one for Notre Dame.

“I will tell you, when he walked into that gym with the shirt tucked into his jeans, he got a tremendous amount of looks, like, ‘Who the hell is this kid?’”

Quenton Nelson has a knack for memorable first impressions. Take it from graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey, who first saw Nelson at Notre Dame’s offensive line camp when Quenton was already committed.

“We were watching 1-on-1s, and all of a sudden there’s this refrigerator playing left tackle that’s a high school kid,” McGlinchey said. “I’m like, ‘Who the hell is that?’ ”

And, like any good refrigerator, Quenton Nelson knows how to store his food.

“The most unbelievable eater I think I’ve ever seen is Quenton Nelson, bar none,” said former Notre Dame offensive lineman Mark Harrell, who claims to have personally witnessed Nelson digest “eight or nine” chicken Parmesan servings in a single sitting.

But don’t misunderstand: there is no excess fat on Quenton Nelson. The consensus midseason All-American is 340 pounds of carefully constructed menace. He bench-pressed 26 repetitions of 225 pounds … in high school. That same year, at the NFL Combine, future first-overall pick Jadeveon Clowney could only muster 21 reps.

McAuliffe has trained a formidable roster of NFL athletes, from running backs Donald Brown and Knowshon Moreno, to offensive tackles Rob Petitti and Cedrick Lang, to tight end Garrett Graham, to current Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry and long snapper Rick Lovato.

Quenton Nelson is decidedly different.

“His warm-up would be most people’s workout,” said McAuliffe, a world champion powerlifter in his own right.

“He’s ultimately the fittest big man I’ve ever seen.”

***

Remember that road less traveled?

Brian Kelly was at the end of it, and the Nelson family was less than thrilled.

“I saw him on TV just dressing down this kid on the sidelines. I thought he was going to pop a vein,” Craig Nelson recalled. “I said to my wife, ‘My kids would never play for that guy.’ ”

So, what happened?

Simple.

“Harry Hiestand happened,” Craig Nelson said of Notre Dame’s beloved offensive line coach.

But that wasn’t all. Kelly showed a different side of his personality during Quenton’s in-home visit. He was genuine. He was candid.

And three years later, in the immediate wake of a 4-8 season, he was the same way, in a different meeting.

On Dec. 10, 2016, a day after Notre Dame’s Echoes awards banquet, Kelly sat down with Quenton, Craig and Maryellen Nelson to discuss the future.

“He was so forthright,” Craig Nelson said. “He said, ‘You know, last year was all on me. I underestimated how many leaders I was losing. The leadership I put in place was not good. I need to make some coaching changes.’ ”

Ultimately, Quenton knew he could leave and potentially be a first-round pick. He knew that Notre Dame’s program was in tatters, with no guarantee of an immediate turnaround. He knew that the 2017 offensive line draft class was unusually thin, which presented an opportunity.

And he knew that he had to stay.

“I know all the good reasons why I should leave,” Quenton told his parents, “but I can’t.”

So Quenton Nelson chose Notre Dame, again. He chose Kelly, again.

His head coach returned the favor.

“(Kelly) promised me that no stone would be left unturned, and I can’t believe what he’s been able to do,” Craig Nelson said. “He created a whole new culture and personality with these kids.

“They love him. Right now they’d walk on fire for the guy. How do you do that in six months?”

If you’re Kelly, you spend more time with your players. You get up at 4:30 a.m. to attend each of their summer workouts. You eat lunch with them; you ask questions. You hire two new coordinators, and not just any coordinators. The right coordinators.

You win, and you dance.

After Notre Dame defeated Michigan State 38-18 on Sept. 23, Kelly performed an impromptu jig in the Irish locker room. Then, while clutching the megaphone trophy, he got lifted in the air, just like a trophy.

It may have been the easiest dead lift of Quenton Nelson’s life.

***

Look at him now.

Today, that kid from central Jersey who criss-crossed cross-country courses, that kid who developed footwork by attempting to guard his sister Shannon, that refrigerator in the undersized dry fit T-shirt … that 6-foot-5, 340-pound senior regularly obliterates ACC defensive lines.

Together, he and his friends average 317.9 rushing yards per game, which ranks sixth nationally. Notre Dame’s starting running back, Josh Adams, is in the thick of the Heisman race.

“This position group has a lot of personal pride in what we’re taught and coached to do, and in each other,” said Quenton Nelson, who speaks more loudly on the field than he does in the media. “We try to be the best offensive line unit in the country each week.”

In his senior season, Nelson may have developed into the best offensive lineman in the country — to the delight of all 38 cousins, as well as his friends and former coaches.

“When you see Quenton Nelson pull from left to right, whoever’s on that end of the field better run home to his mother, because he’s done,” said Balzofiore, his former Pop Warner coach.

Added McAuliffe: “Every Saturday, my family knows not to go near daddy, because that’s heaven time for me.”

With a home test against Wake Forest (5-3) — which leads the country with 74 tackles for loss — looming, AP No. 5 Notre Dame (7-1) remains firmly in College Football Playoff contention.

Not only that, but ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. recently ranked Nelson as the nation’s No. 11 overall prospect in the upcoming NFL Draft.

“He’s the real deal,” Kelly said. “Show me one that’s better.”

Turns out, Notre Dame’s biggest, baddest dude is also its smallest scrap of paper.

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mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Blue's Josh Adams runs the ball as Quenton Nelson blocks for him during the New & Gold scrimmage game Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson (56) picks up Equanimeous St. Brown (6) after he caught a touchdown pass as Mike McGlinchey (68) taps his helmet during the Temple at Notre Dame NCAA football game at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA