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Tone-setting Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson is the “nasty player,” the Bucs really need

By Rick Stroud
Notre Dame offensive lineman Quenton Nelson speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine, Thursday, March 1, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) INDC119

INDIANAPOLIS – Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson has set the tone for every offensive lineman in the NFL draft. Monotone.

With a no-nonsense delivery that was serious but bordered on hilarious, Nelson used a 16-minute media session at the league's scouting combine this week to make the argument that he is the type of player whose performance and attitude would lift any offense.

"Yeah, I would consider myself a nasty player,'' Nelson said. "I want to dominate all my opponents. I want to take their will away to play the game."

But offensive lineman worthy of a top-10 selection typically play tackle, not guard.  In fact, the last guard taken that high was Jonathan Cooper, who was drafted No. 7 overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2013. No guard has gone in the top five since the same team selected Leonard Davis with the second pick in the 2001 draft.

Nelson makes a good argument why that trend may be about to change.

"You have guys that are dominating the NFL right now in Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox, that have just been working on interior guys, and you need guys to stop them," Nelson said. "I'm one of those guys. You talk to quarterbacks, and they say if a D-end gets on the edge, that's fine, they can step up in the pocket and they can throw. A lot of quarterbacks if given the opportunity can do that. That's what I give is a pocket to step up in.

"I also help the offense establish the run through my nastiness, and establishing the run also opens up the passing game, so I think it's a good choice."

He would be a great choice for any team, especially for the Bucs.

Sure, Tampa Bay's biggest need is on defense, which ranked last overall in the NFL in 2017 and had the fewest sacks (22) in the league. The Bucs can't rush the passer and they struggled covering receivers. General manager Jason Licht has largely ignored the defensive line the past four drafts, taking Noah Spence in the second round of 2016 and defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu in the seventh round last year.

If North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb somehow slips past the Indianapolis Colts at No. 3 and is still there when the Bucs make the No. 7 selection, he would likely be the pick. But you shouldn't bet on it.

There are better, if not the best odds, that Nelson could be there for the Bucs. Considering that Kevin Pamphile and Evan Smith are expected to hit free agency when the new league year begins March 14, Nelson would fill a glaring need. The Bucs tied for 27th in rushing average last season with 3.7 yards per attempt.

Nelson's words are only exceeded by his tape. He does seem to take away opponent's will to play the game.

That matter-of-fact statement is demonstrated by plays that have become part of Irish lore. There was the time he lifted a leaping LSU defender by grabbing him under the helmet and pancaking him to the ground. There was the play when he leveled a defensive tackle, linebacker and safety – all on the same snap. And for pure hustle, how about when he exploded from his left guard position across the formation and flattened a blitzing Georgia linebacker.

"You just saw him game after game," Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "There was some kind of play that was just jaw-dropping. He makes plays all over the field."

With his baby face and sweeping bangs, Nelson doesn't appear to be the same guy who struck fear in defenders. Where did that nasty streak come from? Maybe because he was the youngest of 39 siblings, nephews and nieces. "The little guy,'' he said. Except he weighed nearly 11 pounds at birth and has grown to be 6-foot-5, 325 pounds with an 82 5/8 inch wingspan.

If the Bucs are ever going to end their 10-year post-season drought, they will have to find some balance on offense. Running the football also is a good way to help the defense by controlling time of possession. It protects the quarterback. It wears down the opposing defense.

Behind Nelson and McGlinchey, the Irish won the Joe Moore Award given to the nation's best offensive line. They paved the way for running back Josh Adams to rush for 1,430 yards.

"You're probably not going to get a better teammate," McGlinchey said of Nelson. "He's a phenomenal player, phenomenal person. Cares as much as anybody in the building, works as hard as anybody in the building and when he gets into the meeting room, when he steps across those white lines, he's a different animal."