WESTFIELD, Ind. – Ryan Kelly has been where Quenton Nelson is about to go. He was the first-round draft pick, the first-day starter, the savior to a position that desperately needed saving.
It was 2016 and Kelly, an All-American center out of storied Alabama, was considered a missing piece on the Indianapolis Colts’ substandard offensive line. He was the center of the future, and the future was now.
Fast-forward to Thursday afternoon at Grand Park Sports Campus. As the Colts went through their first training camp practice, Nelson was situated to Kelly’s immediate left with the starting offensive line. That’s where he’s been, essentially, since general manager Chris Ballard snatched the All-American guard out of Notre Dame with the sixth-overall pick in the April draft.
Nelson is immense in stature – 6-5 and a thick 330 pounds – but as quiet as the breeze. The latter belies the expectations that follow him into his rookie season.
“I always look as challenges as an opportunity and I’m looking forward to starting and playing with the entire offensive line and doing my job,’’ Nelson said.
Hardly bulletin-board material.
Kelly smiled when Nelson’s understated personality was mentioned. That’s also been evident in the meeting room.
“Hasn’t really said a lot,’’ Kelly said. “That’s the best way to go when you’re a rookie. Just show what you can do on the field before you start talking about it.
“It’s tough being a rookie. I’ve been there. I’ve been in that situation where you’re going to be the day 1 starter, and that’s tough. It’s tough to come in there with expectations.’’
Expectations? Ballard sent those through the stratosphere when he veered outside the box and used the sixth-overall pick on Nelson. It marked the first time since 1986 a pure guard – Jim Dombrowki by the New Orleans Saints – had been taken with a top-6 pick.
Ballard described the decision “the easiest pick I’ve ever been a part of, by far.’’
Nelson is the centerpiece of the 11-player draft class that is expected to contribute to Ballard’s renovation of the roster. The slot-by-slot projection varies.
Linebacker Darius Leonard needs to emerge as the weak-side starter. Guard Braden Smith should push veteran Matt Slauson for the starting right guard spot. Running back Nyheim Hines and wideout Deon Cain seem to offer big-play possibilities at their positions. Tyjuan Lewis is viewed as a viable rotational option on the defensive line while Kemoko Turay might add juice to the pass rush.
But Quenton Nelson is the starting left guard.
Despite his decorated career at Notre Dame that included endless highlight videos of pancaking or mauling defenders, Nelson’s initial transition to the NFL hasn’t been seamless. His on-field performance frequently reaffirmed his reputation as “the best pulling guard, ever,’’ according to coach Frank Reich, but there were occasional rookie-related hiccups.
“Even though he’s a great prospect and we’re really excited about him, he doesn’t have all the answers yet and there is a process of learning,’’ Reich said. “I think he’s probably had one or two ‘Aha moments.’
“I remember seeing him on a double team . . . I don’t know if it was Grover (Stewart) or Al Woods. They’re trying to move him and him and he wasn’t moving. I said to myself, ‘I bet he’s not used to feeling that.’ He used to, when he gets down on a double team, of moving somebody, and now there’s guys in this league that’s just another step up competition-wise.’’
That has been obvious to Nelson, and he’s adjusted accordingly.
“I just have to be more consistent in everything I do on the field and just improve every single day with my technique,’’ Nelson said. “Just that you’ve got to start over and take a beginner’s attitude.
“Everything’s new and you can keep learning every single day and not to be content with where you are.’’
Again, those “Aha moments” always lurk to serve as a learning experience.
“There have been a few times where he’s been a bit frustrated with a few things,’’ Kelly said. “I’ve been, ‘Look dude, you’re 22 years old. You’ve been playing against guys who’ve been in the league six, seven years. Some of the stuff you did in college isn’t going to work.’
“I remember being in that same situation, being frustrated that there’s things I couldn’t do, that I couldn’t get away with at (this) level. You have to figure it out yourself.
“I think being thrown to the fire from day 1 of OTAs and seeing him progress throughout that is definitely reassuring. I’m sure he’ll be fine.’’