Analysis: Quenton Nelson's happy return to Notre Dame transcends draft stock rise

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In a downpour Saturday night, they waited on the wrong side of the Notre Dame Stadium north gate with waterlogged smiles, but smiles, nonetheless.

Somewhere on the other side, celebrating with teammates and talking to the media, and trying to find a way to keep the Senior Day moments from ending, was arguably the best college football player in America who won’t be invited to New York next month for this year’s Heisman Trophy allocation.

While Craig and Maryellen Nelson filibustered in the cold, soggy mess until their jumbo-sized son emerged to meet them, they couldn’t help pondering what Irish senior offensive guard Quenton Nelson would have missed had he run with his second-round grade last January from the conservative-grading NFL Draft Advisory board and taken the plunge as a three-and-out early entry.

“You know why I am so happy Quenton came back?” Craig Nelson said not long after AP No. 9 Notre Dame rallied past Navy, 24-17, in the younger Nelson’s final home game of his college career.

It had nothing to do with the younger Nelson’s soaring draft stock, which could boost him into the top 10 next April at a position that normally doesn’t warrant that kind of investment.

And everything to do with a life experience.

“I’m glad he got to see how a man deals with adversity — that being coach Brian Kelly,” Craig said, “and dealing with adversity the right way. I wouldn’t have wanted him to miss that.”

Quenton, a likely very late first-rounder at best or early second-rounder in last year’s draft will technically still be an early entry this January, when the 6-foot-5, 330-pounder is expected to decline his fifth-year option.

But his impact on a team with the chance Saturday night at Stanford (8 p.m.; ABC-TV) to win its way into the New Year’s Six bowl mix is undeniable.

Ditto for the grad senior offensive tackle that has lined up to Nelson’s left through 12 largely miserable games in 2016 and 11 in a resurgent 2017 season, Mike McGlinchey.

“I was surprised,” sophomore cornerback Julian Love recalled when he learned both opted to return to ND for the 2017 season. “I didn’t even know how old they were. I just knew they were super good. And I just knew we had something great coming.

“Everything in the whole offseason came together. You have the strength program. We have coordinators who are committed to us, and talented players who really love each other. I’m just happy to be a part of not just Notre Dame, but this Notre Dame team specifically. This is a special team.”

Avoiding the triple-option hangover

The post-Navy injury report Sunday was more abbreviated than usual. So was the lamenting that normally comes along with it.

The most serious ND injury Saturday was sustained by an offensive player, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who is in the midst of concussion protocol. That after flipping in the air on a high pass and hitting his head on the turf during the first quarter against the Mids.

ND’s second-leading receiver’s status for Saturday night’s matchup between Notre Dame (9-2) and Stanford (8-3) will be defined later in the week. It could be a St. Brown-less game, as Equanimeous’ younger brother, Osiris, is redshirting for the Cardinal as a freshman wide receiver.

ND’s leading receiver, sophomore Chase Claypool, also spent a significant chunk of time on the sideline this past Saturday after suffering a shoulder injury.

“Nothing that would preclude him from (coming) back in,” Kelly clarified. “We just had a rotation that we felt comfortable (with) at the time, but he'll be fine for Stanford.”

Typically, the aftermath of Navy and other triple-option teams for Notre Dame has meant defensive linemen and linebackers banged up for the succeeding games, or players such as Louis Nix and Jarron Jones avoiding extended duty in those games all together in a draft year for those players.

Perhaps there’s a mental shift too in going back to defending a conventional offense, but in any event there definitely has been a triple-option hangover in Kelly’s regime and Charlie Weis’ before him.

In calculating the bottom line, consecutive games against triple-option teams counted as one game. So with that in mind, the post-triple-option record in the Weis Era was 3-3. So far under Kelly, it’s 5-5, with three of the five victories narrow escapes.

Whether the trend holds or is broken against Stanford Saturday night, at least Notre Dame heads to Palo Alto, Calif., with a full complement of defensive front-seven players.

Perhaps it’s because of the approach defensive line coach Mike Elston took going into the most recent of the 91 consecutive meetings between ND and Navy with regard to legal, but unconventional, cut blocks.

It started with not requiring defensive linemen to wear knee braces for the game, and none of them did voluntarily, per Kelly.

“It's attitude, really, more than anything else,” Kelly said. “What kind of attitude do you have going into the game? I just felt like our guys had a great attitude to go in and play and compete and not worry about those things.

“If you're worrying about your knees and you're worrying about getting cut, you're probably going to get cut. But our guys came out of it with no injuries, no concerns, no feeling of they got after my knees.

“That's a different (Navy) offense in the sense that it's a bigger team. They're not as small up front, where they have to rely on cut blocks. They can play a lot more of a physical game. So I think it was just the attitude was right and the way the guys played the game.”

All you need is Love?

Remember when Stanford came into Notre Dame Stadium last October and rallied for a 17-10 victory without injured Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey?

And some unknown Cardinal running back, McCaffrey’s replacement, gashed the Irish for 129 yards on 23 carries?

That guy happened to be Bryce Love, Stanford’s Heisman Trophy candidate this season and the nation’s leading rusher (172.3 yards per game).

How much Love the Irish will see Saturday night depends on how the aspiring pediatrician’s sore ankle cooperates. The injury has lingered since October, prompting the 5-foot-10, 196-pound junior to miss a 15-14 survival of Pac-12 lightweight Oregon State on Oct. 26 and to grind through the pain in subsequent games.

In the Cardinal’s 17-14 edging of rival Cal Saturday night, Love was limited to 14 carries (101 yards) and turned over the running back chores to backup Cameron Scarlett (61 yards on 14 carries) 44 seconds into the fourth quarter.

Injuries, meanwhile, have helped precipitate ND standout running back Josh Adams’ fall from the top five nationally in rushing to this week’s No. 14 standing (121.5). However, the 6-2, 225-pound remains near the top in yards per carry nationally (fourth at 7.82), with Love No. 2 to Arizona QB Khalil Tate, at 8.84.

Also coming up big in last year’s ND-Stanford game was Irish cornerback Julian Love. A freshman at the time making his second collegiate start, Julian recorded four tackles and recovered a fumble that led to ND’s only touchdown in that game.

As a sophomore, he has been Notre Dame’s best cornerback all season, with 55 tackles, three interceptions (including 2 pick-6s) and school-record 14 pass breakups. On Saturday against Navy, he played some safety and looked like a star-in-the-making at that position.

So could Love actually evolve into a safety and leave a talent-laden but numbers-limited cornerback corps?

“He's capable of playing safety, but he's our best corner,” Kelly said Sunday. “If we could clone him, I'd like to do that.”

Love recorded a career-high 14 tackles Saturday against the Mids.

“Could he be our best safety? Yes,” Kelly continued. “He's definitely our best corner. The problem is we can only play him at one of those two positions.

“You've got Troy (Pride). You've got (Shaun) Crawford. You've got (Nick) Watkins (all at cornerback). Why don't you move Love (to safety)? But I think where we are right now, with one game to go, we're going to hold serve.”

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Returning to Notre Dame for his senior season was an uplifting experience for Notre Dame offensive guard Quenton Nelson (56), here hoisting quarterback Brandon Wimbush in the air after a touchdown against Wake Forest, Nov. 4 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)