While Nyles Morgan was Notre Dame’s biggest catch on the defensive side of the football in the 23-man signing class of 2014, a comparable title on the offensive side belonged to Red Bank (N.J.) High School tackle Quenton Nelson.
Ranked as a four-star prospect by Scout, Nelson arrived at Notre Dame last summer with his fair share of five-star traits. He helped lead his prep squad to a 9-1 record during his senior year as the Caseys averaged 279 yards rushing and 43.5 points per game.
With the shoulder-to-shoulder width of a garage door, Nelson immediately placed his name on the Notre Dame depth chart behind starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Nelson was physically capable of making a contribution to the Irish in 2014, but the coaching staff decided to preserve a year of eligibility.
As preparations for spring ball began, Nelson was shifted to left guard, where he was to compete with Matt Hegarty and fellow classmate Alex Bars for the starting job. Hegarty decided to take his final year of eligibility elsewhere after starting the final 11 games of the ’14 season at center as Nick Martin’s injured thumb prompted his move to guard.
Although Nelson didn’t definitively win the starting left guard spot in the spring, he worked predominately with the No. 1 unit and appeared to be the front-runner for the starting job heading into the fall.
Nelson begins the 2015 season as the starting left guard and maintains that position throughout the campaign. An extended long-term, best-case scenario would be if Nelson followed the pattern set by Zack Martin, who started 52 straight games for the Irish before his selection in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2014 NFL draft.
There is the possibility that Bars beats out Nelson during the pre-season, but it does not seem likely that the Irish will allow Nelson to languish on the sidelines for another season. Steve Elmer, now a junior, is solidly locked into the starting right guard position. Nelson could play tackle if necessary. One way or another, there should be a starting slot for Nelson this season and beyond.
There are numerous four-star offensive linemen who preserved a year of eligibility at Notre Dame, and then emerged as potential four-year starters in their second year in the program. Current left tackle Ronnie Stanley was the No. 66-rated overall prospect in the country when the four-star standout arrived at Notre Dame from Las Vegas. Like Nelson, Stanley preserved a year of eligibility despite holding down a No. 2 spot on the depth chart during his freshman season, and then emerged as a clear-cut starter in the spring. Stanley has started 26 straight games for the Irish, which is a similar path for Nelson to follow health permitting.
Steve Elmer, another four-star prospect, played early in his freshman season, even starting four games in 2013 before getting the call in all 13 games last season. Nelson certainly was capable of a similar path, but with a veteran crew up front, the Irish were able to preserve a year. Nelson’s right on target to living up to his billing.
To be determined
“Quenton Nelson is extremely explosive. Strong and can overwhelm a defender. Alex Bars is extremely efficient and technically so far above the normal red-shirt freshman. They’ll have to both play. Bars may play some tackle. We don’t see Q as a tackle right now.”
-- Brian Kelly