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All-American mentality: Quenton Nelson instills high standard as Irish leader

| Friday, November 17, 2017

Lauren Weldon and Chris Collins | The Observer

In the atrium of Notre Dame’s Guglielmino Athletics Complex sits seven iterations of the statue college football players dream of winning.

But behind those seven Heismans sits six more trophies, a selection of some of the “other” individual awards in college football.

In the middle of those six sits the Outland Trophy.

Given to the best interior lineman in the nation, it doesn’t get the recognition the Heisman does. Its purpose, after all, was to recognize the players that John H. Outland felt were given the least attention.

“Outland moments,” aren’t really a thing. They certainly don’t usually make the rounds on Twitter.

Frames aren’t captured of players incidentally striking an in-game “Outland pose:” low, almost diving, as if the block being made is a desperate, necessary attempt.

But, on Sept. 9, Quenton Nelson inadvertently made an Outland pose. Georgia redshirt-sophomore free safety J.R. Reed blitzed Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from the quarterback’s right side. With a seemingly unabated path to the Irish signal caller, Reed was knocked out of his way by Nelson, who had picked up the blitz and carried his 330-lb frame across the play quickly enough to protect Wimbush.

“Yeah, I remember that one,” Nelson said of the play. “The tackle looped outside, so I looped to my right and no one was coming at me, so I slid to the opposite side of the line. The safety popped up and I just smashed him.”

If ever an offensive lineman had an Outland moment, that was it.

The play did what guard highlights usually don’t: It blew up on Twitter.

“Some of my friends sent me it, it was pretty fun to see,” Nelson said.

It wasn’t the only play this year to have done so, a new Quenton Nelson highlight seems to follow every Irish game, whether he’s mailing a defensive lineman downfield, pulling to the right side of the line or picking up a blitz as he did against the Bulldogs.

It’s those kind of plays that have made him a preseason and midseason First Team All-American selection — almost certain to win the real honor when the season ends — and a leading candidate for the Outland Trophy.

Nelson could have had an accomplished college career without all of that. He started in both 2015 and 2016. During the former year, he helped the Irish rush for over 200 yards per game, post a 10-3 record, play in the Fiesta Bowl and finish with a top-10 ranking. After the latter, he was rated as arguably the best guard prospect in his class and a potential first-round NFL Draft selection.

But like when the Irish guard saw no Georgia player directly in front of him to take on, Nelson knew he still had more to do. He wasn’t satisfied with the team’s 4-8 record and set about improving. That included improvement in his own game, but also as a leader. Nelson became a captain for 2017, determined to instill the standard that has turned him into perhaps the college game’s best guard into every player.

“I considered it, but I knew I had a lot of work to do and a lot of stuff to improve in terms of my technique and just leaving the team on a better note,” Nelson said. “I knew I wanted to come back this year after a 4-8 season and have a better season as a team, be a captain this year and have a chance to lead this team.”

Nelson had, after all, committed to the Irish in the offseason following 2012’s 12-1 season, and said the team’s winning mentality, as well as factors such as the focus on academics, was a major reason for choosing Notre Dame.

“I came here because of the type of guys that are here,” Nelson said. “Everyone comes here to get a degree and try to win a national championship.”

That winning mentality meant sticking around to avoid finishing on a disappointing season. However, while his reasons were primarily for the team, it hasn’t hurt his personal draft stock either. It’s hard to improve upon being the top guard in your class, but Nelson looks to have done just that. Nelson is likely to be the highest-drafted player to play exclusively guard in college since at least Jonathan Cooper (seventh overall) in 2013, and — if teams value him as much as CBS Sports, which rates him as the nation’s fourth-best overall prospect — he could be the top prospect to do so since 1975, when Ken Huff went third overall.

The mentality that led Nelson to return has also meant he embraces the dirty work. It’s hard to be a great guard without doing so. The offensive line is hardly a glamor position in football, but the Irish — who have consistently focused on recruiting linemen under Brian Kelly, including the five-star Nelson — understand its importance.

Nelson, big since he was born at 10 pounds and 10 ounces, had to understand that importance early, playing lineman throughout his childhood and quickly growing to appreciate the joys of making a block to get a teammate into the endzone, rather than getting there himself.

“I think when you’re younger you want to have the ball, but at the same time I quickly learned I had a role to play,” Nelson said. “Blocking for your teammates and celebrating with them in the endzone is fun too.”

It helps though, that the Irish offensive line as a unit has been considered one of the best in college football this season, helping four different players to 100-yard rushing games this year, and two more to 50-yard games, as the Irish have rushed for an average of 303.2 yards per game, the most since the national champion 1973 Irish set a program record with 350.2 yards per game. Nelson said communication both on and off the field has allowed the line to be more than simply the sum of its parts.

“We communicate every play and hang out with each other every day,” Nelson said. “I don’t hang out with anyone except the offensive line. We all have the same attitude and the same kind of goals, and when you have everyone fighting for goals, fighting to achieve them, it’s a great thing. It’s very special.”

But perhaps the most important relationship on that line is between Nelson and the player to his right, fellow All-American candidate and possible future NFL first-round selection graduate student Mike McGlinchey. The pair exchange a fist bump between every snap, a ritual that represents the closeness off the field between the two linemen who have dominated mauling defenders on it.

“We saw a former NFL player Olin Kreutz do it to everyone on his offensive line, so we started doing that too,” Nelson said. “It’s just something to start every play that regroups you for the next play. He’s been a great guy to have outside of me and I think our relationship’s a big reason why we’ve had so much success on the line this year.”

But even among offensive linemen, guards can easily feel unrecognized. Tackles are typically the stars of the line and centers at least get to touch the ball and call out protections. Guards tend to get the least notice. Nelson, a high school tackle, had to move inside when he arrived at Notre Dame.

“I just wanted to contribute to this team in any way I can, even if it wasn’t playing tackle and I fit in pretty well at guard,” Nelson said. “I was lucky to play it my first year next to Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, and it was a lot of fun. Now I’ve played there a few years, it’s worked out great.”

But in the three years that followed, Nelson turned the guard position into one that produces highlight plays every week. Nelson may not become the first guard to ever win the Heisman Trophy, but as long as there are still games to come in his Notre Dame career, he might just produce a few more Outland moments.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

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