One of the top emerging prospects for the upcoming 2018 draft has been All-American Quenton Nelson, the hulking left guard out of Notre Dame.
While all positions on the offensive line are deemed unexciting, he is attracting top-5 attention, and rightfully so.
His level of dominance at a position that has seen a talent drought—and one that regularly faces off against a position group that has seen a rapid evolution—adds jet fuel to his draft stock. NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks even sees Nelson as “a talent with the potential to challenge the conventional wisdom about how to value his position, whether he enters the draft in 2018 or 2019.”
As a full-time starter last year, Nelson allowed just one quarterback hit and zero sacks in 439 pass block snaps, per Notre Dame Insider. The fourth-year junior surrendered just three total sacks and three QB hits in 850 pass block snaps leading up to the 2017 season. And Nelson’s carried that stellar play through this season, even earning a 92.8 grade from Pro Football Focus.
Last week he faced one of his toughest challenges in a top-ranked Miami Hurricanes team. Given the caliber and type of competition, this was also one of the more telling samples of Nelson’s ability to operate against next-level talent. The Canes boast one of the most athletic and dynamic defenses in college today, and they make life difficult on offenses by coming at them with speed and exotic blitzes.
Despite the brutal 41-8 loss, Nelson by all accounts held up well.
The 6-foot-5, 330-pound New Jersey native again demonstrated his elite set of tools and technical proficiency in harmony, which led to dominant snaps. Below are 19 plays of Nelson from that game. What stands out is his consistency, even beyond these reps; his nigh-immovable base; his motor and true protective instincts; his ability to play well in space; and his ultra-intense upper body strength. Essentially all the traits that make him a top-5 prospect.
The following includes 10 pass-block snaps, nine run-block snaps and only one play where Nelson was really affected.
For reference, Nelson is No. 56, the left guard.
On this play, a batted ball, it's clear Nelson does his job. He quickly engages, wins the leverage battle off the snap, stands the defensive tackle up, and even pushes him aside to create a throwing window for his quarterback.
While the ball is knocked down, it's by a linebacker in the second level, and out of Nelson's control. This early-game snap is a quintessential example of Nelson dominating at the point to provide a clean pocket with plenty of depth for the QB to maneuver and step into throws.
Here Nelson is again, absorbing the rush and not moving back but a foot. It became a pattern throughout the game where that left interior side would not breach, even when Miami started to find success on the edges.
Nelson's combination of balance, strength and technique allows him to stonewall defenders like this fairly consistently. Now-No. 3-ranked Miami, with its vaunted defense, couldn't generate any push up the middle despite working another All-American in left tackle Mike McGlinchey (No. 68).
Athleticism gets the better of McGlinchey here. But the backside breakdown notwithstanding, Nelson continues to manhandle his defender until the very last moment. He sustains this block for over five seconds in a chaotic setting.
Here is another similar example on the same drive by Notre Dame.
This time No. 99, a 6-foot-5 Joe Jackson, who Nelson stood up on the prior play when the D-end rushed from the 3-technique, beats McGlinchey on the edge. Nelson meanwhile puts No. 90 in the ground.
As the game wore on, Notre Dame's tackles struggled with the speed of the Hurricanes' ends. But in the midst of it all, down 34-0 to a lower-ranked team on the road, Nelson continued to beat up on people.
It was a prideful performance.
Nelson also dealt with the challenge that Miami presented with its quickness.
Speed nearly gets the better of Nelson here, but football smarts led to a good recovery.
On this play Nelson was a hair too slow with his get-off, but the Irish guard quickly diagnosed his situation and redirected the incoming lineman, using his own momentum against him. Nelson sends his man past the quarterback, providing time for the TD throw on what might've been a blown assignment by most other guards.
Nelson deals with speed here again.
McGlinchey gets beat around the corner, but Nelson deals with speed here in a different way. His defender has an 8-yard running head start, in which he hopes to thump Nelson. But the guard plants and absorbs the rush again without compromising the pocket.
Another time Nelson was challenged by the Canes' quick-moving defensive front was the one time he was truly affected. And it happened early in the first quarter, and it didn't happen again after that.
Nelson gets hit in the side/shoulder area by Miami's twisting left defensive tackle, and it knocks him off balance. But he's such a behemoth at guard, he even goes down slow. He's still engaging his man on his way down to the ground, allowing Brandon Wimbush to get the throw off.
Notre Dame obviously did not have a lot of offensive success, including on the ground, as lead back Josh Adams averaged a mere 2.5 yards per carry on 16 attempts. But the bright spots came behind Nelson, who was always looking to put somebody in the ground.
This was one of their positive runs early in the game, a 4-yard gain coming on the left side on a play where Nelson got to the second level and made contact with multiple Miami defenders.
While this run is away from his side, Nelson clears out his defender, pushing the pursuing defensive lineman six yards down the field.
Nelson played his part throughout the game and positively impacted the run game when he was a key part of the blocking design.
Here on a 4th-and-1 situation, Notre Dame dials up a dive behind Nelson, confident they'll get it.
With McGlinchey crashing down on No. 90, who is initially lined up over Nelson, Nelson can then pinch and completely engulf No. 7, the other defensive tackle. Nelson winds up burying his guy, and if McGlinchey finishes No. 90 better and No. 53 on Miami isn't running free through the gap, this goes for more than the bare minimum.
On this play he works to seal off the backside pursuit.
Despite the tackle for loss, Nelson successfully holds his man in check.
Here's Nelson again, working as a plow in the short-yardage run game.
Miami gets the stop on 3rd-and-short, but Nelson absolutely mauls No. 90, violently pushing him back five yards before planting him in the ground.
And despite that level of torque, Nelson, a former high school basketball player and soccer goalie, still moves well in space. He is Notre Dame's ace pulling guard.
Nelson doesn't land a crushing highlight-worthy hit here, but the nimble guard gets out in front of the running back, and shields two defenders from his ball carrier in the second level, leading to a 6-yard gain on 2nd-and-7.
Here are a few more examples of his short-yardage execution and how coach Brian Kelly depends on Nelson in key moments to get the yards they need.
Media courtesy Notre Dame Insider, stats courtesy Notre Dame Insider & Sports Reference