Quenton Nelson

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Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Counting Down the Irish: 2016’s Top Five

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We’ve reached the top of the roster on Brian Kelly’s seventh team. And while it is no match for last season’s star-studded top five, this group has a chance to put together a tremendous season—and all but one of them have a season (or more) of eligibility remaining.

That’s the rub with this football team. As Brian Kelly explained in his introductory remarks heading into training camp, there’s no shortage of talent on this roster, but they’ll need to grow up quickly and prove that they can do the ordinary things right.

While the top of the heap had some consensus, there were still some wildly different evaluations out there. And you can validate any opinion at this point, just because the top three players on this list all have just one year of starting experience.

Young teams can certainly win football games. But they’ll need to come together quickly. As we move beyond prognosticating, it’ll be interesting to see if this roster—and the panel’s selections— plays to our expectation or if they can exceed it.

 

2016 Irish Top 25 Rankings
25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Soph.)
24. Durham Smythe (TE, Sr.
23. Justin Yoon, (K, Soph.)
22. Tyler Newsome (P, Jr.)
21. Daniel Cage (DT, Jr.)
20. Sam Mustipher (C, Jr.)
19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Soph.)
18. Max Redfield (S, Sr.)
17. CJ Sanders (WR, Soph.)
16. Drue Tranquill (S, Jr.)
15. James Onwualu (OLB, Sr.)

14. Alex Bars (RT, Jr.)
13. Alizé Jones (TE, Soph.)
12. Shaun Crawford (DB, Soph.)
11. Nyles Morgan (LB, Jr.)
10. Tarean Folston (RB, Sr.)
9. Jarron Jones (DT, GS)
8. Josh Adams (RB, Soph.)
7. Cole Luke (CB, Sr.)
6. Malik Zaire (QB, Sr.)

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: Torii Hunter Jr. #16 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass and is tackled by Avery Williams #2 of the Temple Owls on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

5. Torii Hunter Jr. (WR, Senior): The only regular returning to the receiving corps, Hunter will be the primary target for Notre Dame’s still-to-be-determined starting quarterback. A smooth athlete with better than advertised speed, Hunter has taken his time developing in the program, with injuries setting him back in two different seasons.

With his baseball career on hold for the time being, Hunter is all about football. And he’ll have every chance to be force-fed the ball this season, with the receiving corps as top heavy as we’ve seen it, especially when it comes to experience.

Hunter isn’t Michael Floyd, Will Fuller or Golden Tate. But he could be senior-season TJ Jones, a versatile playmaker who can bounce around the field and do a little bit of everything. That seems to be the bar we’ve set with Hunter in the top five, mostly based on reputation and a strong spring.

Highest Rank: 3rd. Lowest Rank: 10th.

 

Keenan Reynolds, Isaac Rochell

4. Isaac Rochell (DE, Senior): One of the ironmen of the roster, Rochell led the defensive line in snaps and put together a rock-solid junior season at strong side defensive end. Entering his final year of eligibility, Rochell is healthy and capable of playing just about anywhere, a candidate to move both inside and out.

Rochell has ascended into Sheldon Day’s leadership role, a likely captain as the 2016 squad evolves. If he’s able to turn in Day’s performance wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage, the Irish have an intriguing NFL prospect who could have a long football career ahead of him.

A stout run defender who will be difficult to move off the point of attack, Rochell needs to improve as a pass rusher, finding a way to impact the game by getting to the quarterback. If he can add that element to his repertoire, he could have a special season.

Highest Rank: 2nd. Lowest Rank: 11th.

 

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3. Quenton Nelson (LG, Junior): In just 11 starters, Quenton Nelson has established himself as one of college football’s top guards. A big, strong and long player, Nelson’s got the physical gifts of a tackle and the nasty demeanor of a lineman built for the inside of the trenches.

One of the most powerful run blockers in the country, Nelson will only improve in all facets of the game as he enters his second season in the starting lineup. Lined up next to Mike McGlinchey, the duo might be one of the most physically imposing in all of college football—650 pounds of granite that should protect quarterbacks and power the ground game.

Highest Rank: 2nd. Lowest Rank: 7th.

 

DeShoneKizer

2. DeShone Kizer (QB, Junior): It’s staggering to think that at this time last season, not a single vote was cast for DeShone Kizer. (A sampling of those that received votes: Incoming transfer Avery Sebastian, Nick Watkins, true freshman Justin Yoon and redshirt Jay Hayes.)

What a difference a year makes. Kizer very nearly topped our list, the smallest variance of any player in the eyes of the panel.

Kizer does everything a quarterback should do in a Brian Kelly offense—and has a few other traits that feel like the cherry on top. With the size of a prototype NFL player and the skills of a zone-read runner, Kizer’s offseason was likely spent preparing for a camp competition with Malik Zaire that both players think they’ll win.

At his best, Kizer has the upside of an NFL starter. And with another season under his belt, there’s only room for improvement after seeing and doing things for the very first time in 2015. Two of Notre Dame’s best players are quarterbacks. It’s a tough problem to have, but one every coach would kill for.

Highest Rank: 1st. Lowest Rank: 4th.

 

McGlinchey

1. Mike McGlinchey (LT, Senior): After producing two-straight first round left tackles, the Irish have a third in McGlinchey. While he’s only a second-year starter, McGlinchey came into the preseason viewed as one of college football’s premier talents, understandable when you dig deeper into his performance last season—not to mention just look at him.

McGlinchey was born to be an offensive tackle, and physically he might be the most gifted we’ve seen in recent years. While he’ll be seeing and doing things for the first time, he’s talented enough to use his extraordinary physical gifts to dominate— long arms, quick feet, and great strength, all in a body that could dominate on the basketball court.

Passed the leadership baton from Martin to Martin, McGlinchey is a near lock to be a team captain. And he has a fifth year of eligibility remaining.

Highest Rank: 1st. Lowest Rank: 13th.

 

***

Our 2016 Irish Top 25 panel:
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Eric Murtaugh, 18 Stripes
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John VannieNDNation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
John Walters, Newsweek 

Bye week snapshot: Offensive line

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Entering the season, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line had all the ingredients to be one of the more dominant units in recent Notre Dame memory. A star-in-the-making in left tackle Ronnie Stanley. A fifth-year veteran and two-time captain in center Nick Martin. Add in former high-profile recruits like Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer, along with promising tackle Mike McGlinchey, and there was plenty of reason for optimism.

Expected to be the strength of this offense, the line hasn’t disappointed.

The Irish ground game is one of the best and most explosive in the country. The Irish are seventh in the country in yards per play, and averaging 38.3 points a game, another Top 15 unit.

We’ve seen the time this line has given young quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer to throw and the holes they’ve opened for C.J. Prosise. But with no true statistics to calculate how this group is playing, we’ve turned to ProFootballFocus’s snap count and grading system, our best look at a progress report for the six main contributors along the offensive line.

The MVP: Ronnie Stanley

It shouldn’t a surprise that Ronnie Stanley grades out as the top performer along the offensive line. What might be a surprise is how badly penalties have impacted his overall rating. Stanley is head and shoulders above every other blocker when it comes to pass protection. Only Quenton Nelson and Nick Martin edge him in the run game. But penalties have killed his grade.

The senior potential first-rounder knows he needs to clean up the mental mistakes, some penalties attributed to the different cadences between Zaire and Kizer. But with some good defenses still on the schedule, Stanley has an opportunity to finish strong and play dominant football.

 

Needs a better second half: Steve Elmer

While I won’t take these ratings as bible, it doesn’t take much to notice the slow start to the season by Steve Elmer. The junior is in his third season in the starting lineup, and even though he’s found his home at guard it appears he’s still making too many mistakes.

Elmer’s overall grade is negative mostly based on two tough games—the season opener against Texas and, maybe surprisingly, some struggles against Navy. But Elmer’s held down his starting position, playing the most snaps of any starter on the line, matched by Mike McGlinchey’s 493 plays.

The major deficiencies have come in run blocking. We’ve seen Elmer get his body out of position, too often swinging and missing on a block in tight quarters. Those end up being play-ruiners, and if the junior can clean those up he’ll likely help power the interior ground game, especially against strong rush defenses like Temple, Pitt, Boston College and Stanford, all Top 40 teams against the run.

 

Early Season Surprise: Quenton Nelson

I knew Quenton Nelson was tough. But I didn’t think he’d immediately step into the starting lineup and grade out as Notre Dame’s best run blocker. Nelson’s grades are buoyed by a dominant performance against UMass, but the fact he’s at the top of the stat sheet here is impressive. I also like the fact that he was able to come in and gut out 44 snaps against USC after suffering an ankle sprain. He didn’t earn a positive grade, but the Irish ground game wore down the Trojans late in that ball game.

 

Counting down the Irish: 25-21

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As we begin our rankings, we find a cross-section of players that represent just about every type of Brian Kelly recruit. There are blue-chippers. There are “RKGs.” And there are position switches and developmental projects.

If there’s been a most impressive part of Brian Kelly’s six years in South Bend, it’s the roster building. And no subset of five players does a better job of checking the boxes than this group.

Interestingly, while our “Just Missed” included starters in Romeo Okwara, Amir Carlisle, Justin Yoon (a kicker, but still) and James Onwualu, this group has only two projected starters. But the impact expected from this group certainly speaks to a higher ceiling, and all five players should be important performers this season.

Without further ado, let’s get things started.

 

2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

 

25. Jerry Tillery (DL, Freshman): There was no bigger story in spring football than the emergence of freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery. With Jarron Jones recovering from foot surgery and Sheldon Day taking only limited reps, Tillery emerged as the next man in, a surprising twist considering most expected him to be an offensive tackle.

Brian Kelly raved about his young defensive lineman, and it didn’t just sound like coachspeak. And while we should exercise caution as we set out expectations for one of the Irish’s youngest contributors, Tillery looks like a future star who could make an impact from the get-go, a rarity along the defensive line.

Highest ranking: 19th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (four ballots)

 

Grge Bryant, Austin Larkin
Grge Bryant, Austin LarkinAP Photo/Joe Raymond

24. Greg Bryant  (RB, Sophomore): News broke in July that Bryant would be suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season. That likely played a role in his drop down our lists, with Bryant the biggest “loser” in our poll, falling 15 places from his No. 9 slot last season. The former five-star running back did lead the Irish running backs in yards-per-carry in 2014, but gave way to Tarean Folston down the stretch as his classmate emerged as the closest thing to a feature back the Irish had.

There’s a chance this could be an over-correction by our voters. But if Bryant is going to miss one-third of the regular season, that’s a massive amount of time for a guy who looked to be on the come after a strong spring. But after arriving in South Bend with great expectations, maybe this is the best thing for Bryant. If he returns with fresh legs in October, he’ll be a great option for a ground game that performed well when he shared the backfield with Malik Zaire against USC.

Highest Ranking: 17th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (five ballots).

 

Durham Smythe
Durham SmytheAP Photo/Joe Raymond

23. Durham Smythe (TE, Junior): Notre Dame has produced elite tight ends better than any other program in college football over the past decade. And perhaps that’s why Durham Smythe finds himself on this list, even if he’s only made one catch in his first two seasons in South Bend.

Smythe looks like he’ll be the starter at tight end, the most well-rounded prospect at a position filled with some intriguing pieces. And while there’ll certainly be more mixing and matching at the position after Ben Koyack led the offensive skill players in snaps taken, Smythe has the ability to be just as good as his predecessor (and in all likelihood, better).

At this point, it’s hard to say with certainty what Smythe does well. But he’s got the trust of the Irish coaching staff, and it’s hard to think playing major minutes won’t automatically mean Smythe picks up where Koyack left off.

Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Six ballots).

 

Notre Dame v Arizona State
Notre Dame v Arizona StateChristian Petersen/Getty Images

22. Matthias Farley (DB, Grad Student): What a difference a season makes. At this time last year, Farley looked like a bench warmer. One season after a very disappointing sophomore campaign featured Farley played erratically at safety, Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly moved the veteran to slot cornerback, where he looked to be buried at one of the roster’s deepest positions.

But after KeiVarae Russell was suspended and Cody Riggs slid back outside, Farley emerged as Notre Dame’s best playmaker in the secondary. He filled the stat sheet—tying for the team lead in interceptions, while finishing second in sacks, and tied for second in TFLs. Farley finds his way around the football. And while he’s still prone to the occasional mismatch in coverage, he made enough big plays to make up for it.

Highest Ranking: 12th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (five ballots).

 

21. Quenton Nelson (LG, Sophomore) One year after a redshirt, our panel expects Quenton Nelson to thrive now that he’s in the starting lineup. Penciled in at left guard, Nelson’s emergence ultimately was the reason why Matt Hegarty transferred, with Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand believing that Nelson could plug-in just fine at guard while Nick Martin slides back to center. (Hegarty was told he’d have to compete for the starting job at guard.)

Handing off a job to a young, first-year performer is a risk, especially when it means someone talented like Hegarty is leaving. But after traditionally betting on veterans with time in the program instead of the young player with upside, Nelson must not have given the Irish staff much of a choice.

The physically impressive guard will get his chance to go toe-to-toe with some big-bodied defensive tackles, putting to test the strength and nastiness that has so many excited about his future.

Highest Ranking: 15th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (five ballots).

 

***

Our 2015 Irish Top 25 panel
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan DriskellBlue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Michael Bryan, One Foot Down
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, NDNation
John Walters, Newsweek 

Irish A-to-Z: Quenton Nelson

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After a redshirt season, Quenton Nelson is ready to play. Jumping to the head of the line at a crowded (and talented) position, Nelson is taking his five-star pedigree and bringing it to the starting lineup.

Or at least that’s the current plan. But after a spring spent leading the way at left guard, Nelson is in the driver’s seat to start between Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, a first-year contributor sandwiched between two of college football’s best at their position. A mauling guard who already possesses the strength of an NFL lineman, we’ll see if there are growing pains at a key position along Harry Hiestand’s offensive line.

Let’s take a closer look at the New Jersey native as he prepares for the unofficial beginning of his college career.

 

QUENTON NELSON
6’4.5″, 325 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 56, OG

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Not many offensive lineman projected better, with Nelson earning a five-star ranking and looked at as a Top 30 player in the country. Nelson was an Army All-American and made waves in San Antonio, not to mention on the internet, when he ripped off 26 reps of 225-pounds on the bench press, better than most lineman at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Nelson had offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Stanford and just about anywhere else he wanted. But he committed to Notre Dame early and stuck with his pledge.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Nailed it, though it looks like Nelson is a guard, while classmate Alex Bars—currently set to platoon with Nelson—is a future tackle once Ronnie Stanley departs for the NFL.

This might not be a popular opinion, but consider me among the few people that don’t want to see Nelson on the field in 2014. Using a year of eligibility, especially when the depth chart looks solid with the current projected starting five, would cheat Notre Dame’s staff out of four full seasons of Nelson, likely played at a very elite level.

Save the year and Nelson enters the spring with the inside track in a crowded group fighting for Lombard’s job, and ready to shift outside to tackle when a job opens up.

Of course, a lot of that depends on how well McGlinchey plays. Or Elmer for that matter. Right now, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin feel like the only true “locks” on the line, with Lombard and Elmer likely right behind. Kelly isn’t going to save a year of playing time if he feels like Nelson can help the Irish win now, even if it’ll mean a few bumps along the road as a freshman learning on the job.

Again, the biggest question is how Hiestand keeps all these linemen competitive, happy and productive. And after just six weeks of summer workouts, it looks like the Irish have another star in the making in Quenton Nelson.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

You couldn’t ask for more in a young offensive lineman. Of course, that just means that Nelson has the physical attributes needed to be a very good player. But a lot of offensive line play is between the ears, and we’ll see how quickly Nelson adapts to the demands of the game, and if he finds himself a little too far out over his skis as a first-year player.

That shouldn’t impact the long-term future of Nelson, who has the size and length of a tackle, but the attitude and strength of a guard. As you look to the future, it’s easy to see 2016’s offensive line featuring Nelson next to Bars on the left side, while McGlinchey and Elmer man the right side. That’s a foursome that all profiled to be left tackles that most college programs would love to have.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

For as good as Nelson can be, he’s still just a redshirt freshman. To that point, I expect a good season, within reason. That means that he’ll likely struggle against elite defenders, with veteran players capable of using Nelson’s aggression against him, and potentially getting the young guard and his body out of position.

Of course, there’s also a good chance that Nelson is as good as advertised. Because he did spend the spring beating out a talented depth chart, and his natural strength and power are absolutely keys to being a great guard in Hiestand’s blocking scheme.

Some guys are born to be offensive linemen. Nelson looks like one of those guys. The chance to be a four-year starter is a rare one. But Nelson seems to be on that trajectory.

No pressure, kid.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL