At least in media settings, hulking Notre Dame left guard Quenton Nelson is far from the most talkative of players.
Nelson, a 6-foot-5, 329-pound senior, has started 23 games in his Irish career. He’s among the most accomplished returners on the team and has perhaps the brightest NFL future.
The talent is now taking on a different form, as Nelson — named a 2017 team captain — develops into a vocal leader.
“If I see something that I think is wrong, I’m going to call you out,” Nelson said Friday, appearing the most comfortable he’s been in front of a microphone since arriving at Notre Dame. “If I see something that’s right I’ll be the first one to tell you good job. I’m being pretty vocal.”
In snippets of videos Notre Dame released during the offseason, Nelson was often the first player going through drills. One of the strongest players on the team, he’s taken his leadership cues from the linemen that came before him.
“When I first got on campus I wasn’t the player I am now today,” Nelson said. “It was more about just shutting up, being quiet, putting my head down, learning from the older guys. Just learning as much as I can and being a sponge. Seeing how they lead, watching them play and learning how to become the best I can be and the best player that I could be.”
The Holmdel, N.J., native, is following the same path as recent Notre Dame linemen who went on to be selected in the NFL Draft. Those players oftentimes return to campus and work with the current team, like Nick and Zack Martin did for Notre Dame’s Coaches Clinic last week.
“It was amazing. It means a lot,” Nelson said of those players returning. “It’s a bond that I already have with Coach Hiestand. It’s going to be something I do when I ever leave. I’ll definitely come back. It’s not only the bond with Coach Hiestand, it’s the bond with the players you have here.
“It meant so much that Zack and Nick were there. Getting to talk to them and pick their minds and just listen to them and hear their experiences and getting to learn from them first hand, it was awesome.”
Nelson was arguably the best player on Notre Dame’s team last season, earning third-team All-America honors by Sports Illustrated. While other members of the team failed to live up to expectations during a disastrous 4-8 season, Nelson was a steady force on the offensive line.
His standout play got him lots of attention, and at the end of the season Nelson was considered a likely early-round draft pick. He submitted his name to the NFL Draft Advisory Board, a group that evaluates possible early entrants and gives feedback.
In January, Nelson posted a vague Instagram that alluded to his return for his senior season, though he didn’t really consider it an announcement. “I just posted it. You can take it how you want it,” Nelson said Friday. He also declined to reveal what type of grade he received, noting it was a personal matter.
“I was interested (in the grade), but I felt like I had a lot more to accomplish here,” said Nelson, who is majoring in management consulting. “I wanted to come back and get my degree first and foremost. That’s why we’re here to graduate. I also decided to come here to win a national championship.
Nelson is one of four starters back on the offensive line for the Irish. Fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey is back at left tackle, turning down the same NFL opportunities Nelson did. Senior Sam Mustipher is at center, while senior Alex Bars has slid from right tackle to right guard this spring.
Only the right tackle position remains in flux as sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg battle it out.
“It helps a lot having another year of experience for me and Mike and a year of experience for Sam and Alex,” Nelson said. “We went through a lot last year as a unit and we learned from a lot of our mistakes last year and are looking forward to improving on them and being what we are capable of this year. All four of us with the experience are better off to help Tommy and Liam or whoever starts in that right tackle spot.”
Nelson was asked Friday what area of his game he most wants to improve in 2017. He said he played at a “high level” last season, having only the rare mental or technical mistake.
The real strides, he said, need to come from the group as a whole.
“What I want is this offensive line to be the best in the country and we have the players to do that, the mindset to do that and the coach to do that,” Nelson said. “Playing together is one thing I wish we did better and seeing things together as an offensive line.”
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