Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 62 of 67 PRESEASON 2020 63 IRISH IN THE PROS BY ANDREW MENTOCK Q uenton Nelson is a transcendent offensive guard who, in just two seasons, has revolutionized the In- dianapolis Colts' rushing offense. For the last two seasons — even if contrary to the play design — the team's running backs will follow the holes created by the team's All-Pro left guard. "I don't care what the read is, I just follow 56," Colts running back Ny- heim Hines said. "Ninety-five per- cent of the time, I'm right." This type of praise from a profes- sional running back was always ex- pected from Fighting Irish fans, who had the pleasure of watching Nelson dominate opposing front sevens for three seasons as a starter in South Bend. Now it appears the entirety of the NFL is aware of his prowess. In NFL. com's list of the top 100 players in the league, as voted by the players, Nelson appeared at No. 29. This is the highest an offensive guard has ever been on the list, which has been produced annually for a decade. Some of Nelson's reputation comes from his highlight reel, which fea- tures a number of pancake blocks. Many of those blocks were shown in the video on the NFL's YouTube channel, which was released to an- nounce that Nelson was No. 29 among the top 100 NFL players of 2020. Just 24 years of age, Nelson is no slouch against NFL pass rushers, ei- ther. In 2019, he didn't allow a single sack. "Once he gets his hands on you, it's pretty much over from there," Colts linebacker Anthony Walker said. While Nelson's success as an of- fensive guard is transforming how fans view the position, he's still not the most successful offensive guard from Notre Dame in the NFL. Ap- pearing 26 spots behind Nelson on the list at No. 55 is Zack Martin, likely a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. The Dallas Cowboys right guard is entering his seventh NFL season. He has already appeared in six Pro Bowls and was named a first-team All-Pro four times, plus two more second-team laurels. "He's going to move you off the ball in the run game," Miami Dol- phins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said, "and he's not going to let you get to the quarterback in the pass game. "There are definitely a few plays he got the better of me. I hope they don't show up on his highlight reel." Not only is Martin the second of- fensive guard to appear on this list, but he's also the second overall of- fensive lineman, behind only Nelson. This gives Notre Dame the best two offensive linemen in the NFL, accord- ing to the players. It's apparent that, together, Nelson and Martin have helped change the perception surrounding the offen- sive guard position, even in a league dominated by offensive tackles with seven-figure contracts. Even after a down year, at least by his standards, Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith continues to showcase a dominating presence in the NFL. This is part of the reason the five-time Pro Bowl pick from Notre Dame is No. 64 on the list. "It looks like he's freelancing or [improvising] a play but, because he's so into the film, it's like he's seen it before," former Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly said. "That's why he breaks so fast, he hits so hard and knows where to be." Appearing at No. 74 on the list is former Notre Dame offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley. Currently with the Baltimore Ravens, he is the second- highest-ranked offensive tackle and the fourth overall offensive lineman. Stanley broke out in 2019 when he became a first-team All-Pro and was named the "Pass Blocker of the Year" by Pro Football Focus. It also helps that at a listed 6-5, 315 pounds, he's considered by his peers to be an ath- letic freak. "When the bigger tackles like Stan- ley can do similar things as corners and DBs, that's when you know the guy is just physically different," Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Dion Dawkins said. Rounding out the list among Notre Dame alumni is Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith. In 2019, he made his first Pro Bowl and finished tied for fifth in total tackles among all linebackers. This is an incredible ascension for a player who was almost out of foot- ball after a torn ACL and MCL in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Today, his all-world athleticism is back, and he uses it to excel in all facets of the game. "His ability to shed blocks, it's un- canny, and his sideline-to-sideline speed is remarkable," Bills center Mitch Morse said. "At the same time, he can do some pretty remarkable things in coverage." ✦ Five Former Fighting Irish Players Make NFL's Top-100 List The top two offensive linemen in the NFL's Top 100 — which is voted on by the players — were former Notre Dame standouts Quenton Nelson (No. 29) and Zack Martin (No. 55, above). PHOTO BY JAMES D. SMITH/COURTESY DALLAS COWBOYS

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