“Quenton and Mike are rookies,” said Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand of the additions to Notre Dame’s starting offensive line following the departure of Matt Hegarty to transfer and Christian Lombard to injury/graduation. “Mike’s just as much a rookie as Quenton.
“Alex is a good football player. Quenton just inched in front of him. (Nelson’s) not significantly better than Alex, but it was time to settle on a group and stop rotating them.”
With the return of veterans Nick Martin (center), Ronnie Stanley (left tackle) and Steve Elmer (right guard), three-fifths of Notre Dame’s starting offensive line from ’14 is back with a combined 88 career games and 67 starts – 26 by Stanley, 24 by Martin and 17 by Elmer.
Add up the experience of McGlinchey, Nelson and Bars, which makes up the rest of Notre Dame’s top six offensive linemen, and you have 13 games and one start – all by McGlinchey, including the starting nod against LSU in the Music City Bowl after Lombard finally succumbed to back issues.
Nelson is projected to make his playing/starting debut against the Longhorns at left guard while Bars is expected to be the first offensive lineman off the bench in the season-opener.
“He’ll play on Saturday (against Texas) and be in the rotation at guard,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Bars.
And so begins the next chapter in the lives of these young behemoths with immense potential. Listed as top 200 players by Scout coming out of high school, the Nelson-Bars combination is a formidable duo at 6-foot-4 ¾, 325 pounds (Nelson) and 6-foot-6, 320 pounds (Bars) respectively.
Add McGlinchey to the newcomer mix – at 6-foot-7 ½, 310 pounds – and the present of the Notre Dame offensive line promises a future of tremendous size and blocking prowess.
“Probably in the spring when I started to get some reps with the ones and really got to show what I can do,” said Nelson of when he started thinking in terms of becoming a starter for the Irish.
Asked to describe what it’s like taking on Nelson on a daily basis, Irish “big end” Isaac Rochell – himself considered one of the strongest players on the team – offers the greatest compliment.
“A brick,” Rochell succinctly summarized.
Rated the No. 46 overall prospect in the country when he signed with the Irish in February, 2014, Nelson made a beeline to a No. 2 spot on the depth chart as a true freshman.
Playing tackle behind Stanley, the Irish were able to preserve a year of Nelson’s eligibility before his shift to left guard in the spring. Nelson was expected to compete with Hegarty, who was projected to return to guard with the move of Martin back to center following a season-long thumb issue.
Hegarty surprised the Notre Dame camp by using his fifth year of eligibility at Oregon, thus paving the way for a Nelson vs. Bars battle at left guard spot.
Stereotypes are quick to form and difficult to disavow, particularly before Nelson and Bars have played a live snap. The notion that Nelson is the brawler and Bars is the technician is in play for the time being. The fact of the matter is both are big, powerful, aggressive offensive linemen with brilliant futures ahead of them.
“I’d say that’s accurate, but Alex is very physical, too,” Nelson said. “Alex is moving guys off the ball and doing a good job.”
“People say he’s a brute and I’m more of a technician,” Bars said. “I don’t know. I think we both learn a lot from each other. I see what he does well and vice versa. We use that to make each other better.”
Nelson and Bars are two of the wider bodies to play offensive line for Notre Dame – ever. The first thing you notice about Nelson when he walks through the door is that he possesses a chest as wide as, well, the door itself.
Bars’ width screams offensive guard, and yet at a legit 6-foot-6, he has prototypical tackle height as well.
As any offensive lineman/line coach will tell you, it’s about way more than size when it comes to being an effective run and pass blocker. Kelly calls Nelson and McGlinchey emotional players, and Bars talks about containing his emotions in order to be a more effective, consistent performer.
“A lot of times, me being too physical is a problem and I’ll come off the ball and I’ll be going too hard when I need to come off slowly and use my hands,” Nelson said.
“Obviously, Quenton brings it,” Hiestand adds. “He’s a big guy, he’s tough and he plays physical. But when the defense and everybody in the stadium knows we’re going to throw the ball, he’s got to understand how to adjust. If everybody in the stadium knows we’re going to run the ball, same thing.
“The ‘obvious’ downs are the toughest downs (for Nelson). He’s learning how to recognize he’s in one of those (situations) and what to take away from the defender. The thought process is where he’s improving steadily.”
Bars’ left wrist injury as a true freshman in ’14 ended prematurely what already looked like a red-shirt season. Now that he’s fully healthy, Bars’ confidence that he can compete has skyrocketed.
“The area where I’ve improved the most is with my wrist,” Bars said. “Run blocking for sure. I’ve got to get my pad level down. I feel like I can drive them off the ball. Keep my legs moving. Be quick off the ball with leverage. I feel like I can use my punch better with my wrist.”
As the young guys on the block – and hard-working, earnest ones at that -- Nelson and Bars are inclined to look around them and appreciate the input from the veterans and respect the benefits of their older brethren.
“I’m the luckiest left guard in the country playing between Ronnie and Nick,” Nelson said. “Both are future NFL guys and if I make a mistake, I have them right next to me. They’re making calls for me and they’re being great leaders. They point us in the right direction.
“I’m also lucky to go against Sheldon Day because he’s going to be an NFL player, too. It’s very difficult to block Sheldon. If you’re not good enough to block Sheldon Day consistently, you’ve got a lot of room to improve.”
Said Bars of Stanley and Martin: “Great leaders, great guys. They hold you accountable for what you do. If you do it wrong, they’re going to coach you. They provide great communication.”
Come Sept. 5 as the opening kickoff nears, the butterflies in the stomachs of Nelson and Bars – one a starter and the other the sixth man who could ultimately move into the starting lineup at tackle in the future – will be active.
“It’s go time,” Bars said. “My number could be called at any time. I’m ready.”