What makes Quenton Nelson great? The guys who faced him in college explain

USA Today

What makes Quenton Nelson great? The guys who faced him in college explain

INDIANAPOLIS — Quenton Nelson could break a common thought in NFL circles that guards aren’t worth high draft picks, given it’s generally easier to find a solid guard than it is a solid tackle. But the 6-foot-5, 329 pound bruiser isn’t just a solid player; he has all the makings of an elite player, the kind of guy who solidifies a position for a decade. 

Nelson offered a pretty good sales pitch for himself last week, pointing to the importance of interior linemen in a league in which guys like the Rams’ Aaron Donald and the Eagles’ Fletcher Cox are such disruptive forces. The Bears probably don’t need the pitch, given offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows the ins and outs of Nelson’s game after coaching him at Notre Dame for the last four years. 

But if anyone needs any convincing on Nelson’s talent, take it from some of the guys who had to face him in college: He really is *that* good. 

Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said Nelson was the best player he faced in his college career. Phillips is training for the draft with Nelson in San Diego, and offered this analysis at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis on Saturday:

“He’s very sound with his technique,” Philips said. “He has great technique. And his passion for the game is a reason why he’s successful. It’s all those steps he takes.”

Georgia’s NFL-bound interior duo — Trenton Thompson and John Atkins — were similarly complimentary of Nelson, even though the Bulldogs largely were able to shut down Notre Dame’s offense when the two teams met last September. 

“He’s a great offensive lineman,” Thompson said. “He’s got good willpower.”

Atkins saw some clips of Nelson’s punishing blocks here and there — like him piledriving this LSU player into the turf — and was happy to say he didn’t wind up on Nelson’s highlight reel. 

“I saw a lot of it,” Atkins said. “I was like, man, he’s a really good player.”

N.C. State nose guard B.J. Hill faced Nelson twice in his college career — once in the soggy midst of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and another in more favorable conditions in 2017 — and said matching up with a player of Nelson’s caliber helped build his own confidence as he takes the next step in his career.

“I can play with anybody, because he’s one of the best guards in the nation,” Hill said. “I feel like I can play with anybody if I can play with him.”

And Miami’s R.J. McIntosh, who got the best of Nelson a few times but also got driven into the turf during the Hurricanes’ win over the Irish in November, specifically pointed to Nelson’s strength as the toughest part of facing him. 

“He’s a great player,” McIntosh said. “He always tried — he was physical. He never let you just do anything to him. That kind of stood out to me from anybody else or any O-line. The whole O-line was good, but him as a player, he’s a great player.”

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Hub Arkush (Pro Football Weekly/670 The Score), Mark Grote (670 The Score) and Mark Carman (WGN Radio) join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel. Quenton Nelson works out at Notre Dame’s pro day. If he’s still on the board at 8, should the Bears take him? Plus the panel talks about the Cubs outfield heading into 2018 and if it’s time to shut down both Jonathan Toews and Lauri Markkanen.

Could Quenton Nelson increase his value by playing tackle?

USA Today

Could Quenton Nelson increase his value by playing tackle?

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Quenton Nelson hasn’t met with the Bears yet during this pre-draft process, and doesn’t have a local visit scheduled with them. But maybe that’s not too surprising.

Harry Hiestand has better intel on him than anyone else after coaching him for the past four years at Notre Dame, after all. 

“Coach Hiestand, he’s known me since I was an immature freshman that wasn’t good at football, until now being a lot more mature and responsible and doing the right thing and a good football player,” Nelson said. “He knows everything about me.”

Could part of that intel provided by Hiestand be that Nelson has the ability to eventually play tackle?

Nelson might be the closest to a “sure thing” prospect in this year’s draft, with his reams of dominant film and off-the-charts work ethic projecting him as an All-Pro for years to come. But that he plays guard is a stumbling block, given interior positions generally don’t hold as much value as tackles in the NFL.

So here’s a potential scenario for the Bears: They draft Nelson at No. 8 — which is still "high" for a guard — and plug him at left guard in 2018. They then, under the careful watch of Hiestand, slide him to tackle in 2019. 

“I’m pretty convinced that Q could do whatever he sets his mind to,” Mike McGlinchey, a first-round tackle in his own right who's Nelson’s ex-Irish teammate and workout buddy, said. “If that’s what teams want him to play, I’m sure he’ll take that head on and perform to the best of his ability.” 

Nelson, to his credit, is confident he could make the switch to tackle (he was recruited by Hiestand as a tackle, and began his college career backing up Zack Martin at tackle). He said the only team that’s asked him about it so far is the Cincinnati Bengals, though it’s unlikely he’ll still be on the board when they pick at No. 21. 

But maybe the thought of guards being significantly less valuable than tackles is slowly becoming antiquated in today’s NFL. Four of the top 10 highest paid offensive linemen, by total contract value, are interior linemen. Three of the top 10 offensive linemen with the most guaranteed money are guards, led by Andrew Norwell, who inked a five-year, $66.5 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this month with $30 million guaranteed at signing. Only one offensive lineman — Nate Solder, who just signed with the New York Giants — is guaranteed more money. 

Following the money, if teams are willing to splash down loads of cash for the best guards in the league, a team may be willing to spend a top-10 pick on a guard who could immediately be among the best at his position in the NFL. Or the calculation for whatever team drafts him may be this: Would you rather have him as a perennial All-Pro guard or "merely" a solid-to-good tackle? 

Regardless of where he ends up playing, though, Nelson is one of those supremely-talented players who takes the right approach to his craft — in other words, one of those guys you just want to get in your building. And while Nelson said he’d love to play for his hometown New York Giants — who could be interested in him with the No. 2 pick — he said getting to link back up with Hiestand would be an incredible opportunity, too. 

“That would be amazing to play for him,” Nelson said. “He’s the one that made me into the player I am today. I wouldn’t be here without him or be in any conversations in the draft without him, so it would mean a lot to play for him again.”