The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were a disappointing 4-8 squad last season, but they weren’t bereft of talent. Quarterback DeShone Kizer was a second round selection in this year’s draft, and left tackle Mike McGlinchey is considered one of the top senior linemen available in the 2018 class. One more name of interest is left guard Quenton Nelson. Nelson first saw the field for the Irish in 2015, when he started 11 games at left guard as a redshirt freshman. After another full season of starts in 2016, he’s on track to eclipse 30 before graduating from the program. Looking at his skillset, it’s easy to see his NFL potential.
Run blocking locomotive
Nelson will be one of the premier run blocking prospects in the 2018 draft. He delivers his blocks with authority, like a brazen bus driver who understands that his vehicle is three times as large as anything else on the road. Witness him pulling across the formation and pancaking not one, but two USC defenders on this play:
Nelson is a finisher who will fight to the whistle on every single block. He won’t stop until someone is on the ground or the play has ended. Having exceptional power in his upper and lower body, he’s well-proportioned to pave the road for his running backs. He’s very much in the mold of Oakland Raiders guard Gabe Jackson, who just signed a five year extension last month – a balanced, powerful road grader.
Promising pass protection
The skillset that Nelson brings to his run blocking is also present when the quarterback drops back to pass. He has a strong anchor and (crucially) understands how to redirect force and re-anchor if he loses a battle at the snap. Here’s one example of Nelson setting his anchor against a very difficult opponent: eventual Seattle Seahawks second round pick Malik McDowell.
McDowell wins off the snap, thanks to a running start and a low pad level. But while Nelson is pushed backward three yards, keep note of his placement relative to the hashes. He keeps his hips oriented so that his butt is still pointed at the quarterback, and he uses his strength to flatten out the angle so that Kizer has room to step up in the pocket (or would, if McGlinchey hadn’t lost his man). Nelson even manages to bring McDowell to a halt at the end of the play, lifting him off the ground.
Nelson’s understanding of balance and angles also helps him stay on top of faster pass rushing defensive tackles. He rarely finds himself turned around as a pass blocker, and he understands the mantra “look for work” – when his assignment is neutralized (or doesn’t exist), he’s often moving to assist with a teammate’s block.
Here’s one way in which Nelson shows some advanced handfighting techniques. The Stanford defensive tackle tries to get by him with an arm-over move. Nelson wins off the snap by making initial contact with his punch, then allows the defender’s momentum to follow through before putting his hands back on the player’s pads. Sliding his opponent to the right, he creates a nice throwing lane for Kizer to utilize.
Room for improvement
Nelson is already impressive in several aspects of his technique, but there are occasional lapses that he’ll want to clean up during his redshirt junior season. One issue that came up every now and then was an issue of communication. Nelson would cede an oncoming defender to a teammate, even though that teammate wasn’t in a position to block the player. These lapses created easy pressure on his quarterback. Here’s one example, during which Nelson lets a blitzing linebacker run into the backfield untouched, trusting him to… his center? The running back, who set up for pass protection toward the right side of the line? It’s possible that this example (and others involving Nelson’s gap) were the responsibility of another player, but it’s a trend across Notre Dame’s line that needs to be addressed in the NFL.
Like any lineman, Nelson can have occasional lapses in pass protection. While running back Lavon Coleman’s struggles were caused by a passive approach to pass protection, Nelson will sometimes fall victim to issues of hand placement. As a blocker, the best way to maintain leverage is to place your hands on the opponent’s chest, between their shoulder pads. If you can get your grip there, the opponent’s arms will splay out to the side and be unable to deliver force. What does it look like when you’re the loser in that matchup? This clip:
I’ll stress that Nelson doesn’t lose in this manner very often. Nor, as I said, are the communication issues something frequent. Nelson has a third concern of mine, which is that he sometimes has difficulty lining up blocks in space. The mobility is there, and when he connects he’s a bulldozer, but every now and then he can only get a hand on the opponent before he loses his balance.
Possible Bills fit
At 34, Richie Incognito has shown no signs of slowing down; he’s been selected to the two most recent Pro Bowl squads. However, his cap hit increases to $7.6 million in 2018, and the Bills could free themselves of $6.4 million from that contract if they released him. Nelson, with his strength and mobility, would be a plug-and-play replacement for Buffalo’s starting left guard, though he might not continue the streak of Pro Bowl selections in his rookie year. Even if the team keeps Incognito on board for the short term, then Nelson would quickly ascend to a starting role. With his combination of strength and mobility, Nelson could be a potential round one selection in next year’s draft – right up there with his linemate.
For more scouting reports click here.