All the way back to middle school when beefy Quenton Nelson — remarkably, a cross country athlete at the time — was asked to lose about 20 pounds every year just to be eligible to play Pop Warner football, his determination was already on full display.
No grade-school player wants to cut weight every year just for the opportunity to play a sport, but as Nelson does in every facet of his life, he readily embraced the sacrifices and responsibilities necessary to become the best at what’s next.
That all-work, no-excuses mindset — along with an embarrassment of physical gifts — eventually turned Nelson into a five-star recruit out of Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic High School in 2014. Four years later, he became only the 29th unanimous All-American in Notre Dame history and a first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft.
As the No. 6 overall selection, Nelson became the first offensive guard to be drafted in the top 10 since North Carolina’s Johnathan Cooper (No. 7 overall) and Alabama’s Chance Warmack (No. 10 overall) in 2013.
Sign up for Blue & Gold’s FREE alerts and newsletter
Quenton Nelson (56) helped Notre Dame rush for 422 yards in a 49-16 win over Temple to open the 2017 season.
Nelson — a 2017 Outland Trophy finalist and only the second Irish guard in Notre Dame history to be drafted in the top 10 (Bill Fischer went No. 10 in 1949) — flirted with becoming the first guard to become a top-five draftee since Bill Fralic out of Pittsburgh was selected by the Atlanta Falcons with the No. 2 overall pick in 1985.
Nelson’s former Irish teammate Mike McGlinchey, an offensive tackle, was selected by the San Francisco 49ers at No. 9 in 2018, three picks after Nelson in the same draft.
While still playing alongside Nelson at Notre Dame, McGlinchey was asked to explain what made his Irish teammate so special.
“When you have his [dedication to improve] and the desire that Q has to be as great as he wants to be, the sky is the limit for him,” McGlinchey said. “He studies football like nobody else. He prepares just as hard as anybody else, and he’s gifted in more ways than anybody can imagine.”
On draft day, rookie Colts head coach Frank Reich explained that beyond Nelson’s obvious physical gifts — a skill set that brings more pancakes than a Sunday morning at IHOP — a nasty attitude, strong leadership, and football acumen made drafting a guard in the first round an easy decision.
“I try to bring a physical demeanor to every game, punish my guy that I have to block and just do my job,” Nelson said. “I take a lot of pride in that.”
Playing in his fourth season, Nelson has been consistently rated by Pro Football Focus as the best blocking guard in the NFL. He was a first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl selection in each for his first three NFL seasons. And with the way he’s playing during his fourth in 2021 — even after missing three games with an ankle injury — expect him to be part of both teams again after this season.
Indianapolis was 2-4 on Oct. 24, when Nelson was back in the starting lineup, and it went 3-1 in the first four games upon his return, averaging 154.5 rushing yards.
Through games played Nov. 15, the Colts ranked No. 6 in the NFL in rushing offense and had reclaimed a place as a legitimate playoff contender.
In the first four games after All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson (56) returned from injured reserve, the Colts went 3-1 and averaged 154.5 rushing yards per game. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
The roots to greatness
Well before becoming an NFL millionaire, Nelson had already established himself as a boorish blocker and a no-nonsense team leader at Notre Dame.
Not interested in making small talk or sharing personal anecdotes, Nelson’s work ethic and bluntness made this loyal teammate an ideal Irish team captain in 2017.
“When we did our [personality] strength surveys, his strength was truth, truthfulness,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly explained that season when asked about Nelson’s captainship qualities. “What it’s done, really, it’s created an accountability. So, if someone is not doing it the right way, [Nelson] is not afraid to get up there and tell them, ‘That’s not how we do it here at Notre Dame.’ That’s a real good leader to have on your team.”
Nelson never balked at Kelly’s assessment. In fact, he stoically embraced it, explaining that when his teammates would, “get off track a little bit, they just need a little bit of guidance.”
And, at a chiseled 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds, and with no tangible body fat, who wasn’t going to follow Nelson’s advice?
“I’m just very up front with all of the teammates,” Nelson said matter-of-factly.
Nelson became draft eligible in 2017 after his junior year at Notre Dame.
But dedicated to resetting the course after a 4-8 season in 2016, coupled with a vow from Kelly that an offseason cultural overhaul was coming, the bulldozer returned for his senior season, much to the dismay of defensive linemen around the country.
“I trusted in [Kelly] and he definitely made good on all of the changes he promised,” Nelson recalled. “It resulted in a culture change throughout the entire team, and it’s been awesome to be part of this.”
Those welcome changes for Nelson were highlighted by a more rigorous offseason workout schedule and increased attention to strength and conditioning training under new performance coach Matt Balis.
“Very special,” Nelson said of his time on campus. “Notre Dame has challenged me in the classroom and on the field, and it has made me into a better person and the person that I am today, so I am very thankful.”
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, Blue & Gold Illustrated.
• Watch our videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel.
• Sign up for Blue & Gold’s news alerts and daily newsletter.
• Subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts.
• Follow us on Twitter: @BGINews, @MikeTSinger, @PatrickEngel_, @tbhorka, @GregLadky, and @ToddBurlage.
• Like us on Facebook.