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From knock-kneed to 'nasty,' Quenton Nelson always had an edge

Colts general manager Chris Ballard said he could "feel" Quenton Nelson as he stood on the sideline watching a workout by the the Notre Dame lineman, a guard Ballard would make the No. 6 overall pick in 2018. Matt Cashore/USA Today Sports

INDIANAPOLIS -- There was just something about the 6-foot-4, 250-pound sophomore transfer who showed up at Red Bank (New Jersey) Catholic High School. And it wasn't Quenton Nelson being knock-kneed or pigeon-toed that had Red Bank football coach Jim Portela thinking he had just landed a special two-way player.

"You could tell he was just different," Portela said. "That's the only way I could say it. You just knew there was potential from him then. He had God-given athletic talent back then, but what helped him even more was that he was mentally talented, too. You don't get that often from kids that young."

Nelson has made that kind of impression on many others during his journey to becoming the No. 6 overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts in last month's draft.

Like when he towered over opponents while playing Pop Warner football for his father in New Jersey.

Or when the 14-year-old Nelson beat up older brother Connor, who was a 20-year-old linebacker at Villanova, for the first time in what turned out to be their last scuffle.

Or when Colts veterans Anthony Castonzo and Jack Mewhort spent their Saturday nights in the team hotel fixated on the left side of Notre Dame's offensive line, watching Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey dominate their opponents to the point that it "almost looked kind of easy for him, quite honestly."

Or when Colts general manager Chris Ballard could "feel" Nelson as he stood on the sideline intensely watching the Notre Dame lineman's pro day in South Bend, Indiana.

But don't ask Nelson about those moments, because he would rather not talk about them or have others talk about them for him. It's why he declined to have any other family members interviewed for this story.

Nelson's locked-in personality was on display during a recent interview. His answers were brief and to the point. He's the type who would rather talk about the team than talk about himself.

Are you excited to sign your contract?

Nelson: Yeah, I signed my contract.

Let's try this again.

Are you worried about being in football shape after the past few months of preparing for a battery of tests at the combine and your pro day?

Nelson: No. I'm good.

"That's great he's doing that," Castonzo said. "He'll eventually show his personality, but right now he's a football robot, which is a good thing."

Nelson's focus is strictly on becoming the next dominant guard in the NFL.

Q text messaging during warm-ups .....let us pray

A post shared by Craig W. Nelson (@craigwnelson) on

He was always one of the biggest, toughest and most athletic players no matter what sport he played. He spent time in the summer working to lose weight so he could play Pop Warner football with kids a couple of years older than him. He was a 6-foot-5, 300-pound power forward who could handle the ball like a guard on the basketball court in high school, often facing opponents he outweighed by more than 100 pounds.

"I think our dad probably had the same thing playing football," Connor Nelson said about his brother's competitiveness. "We've all been pretty competitive growing up. [Craig Nelson] played a year at Syracuse. He's probably the most competitive person I know."

Quenton almost didn't become the "nasty" offensive lineman who was so good at Notre Dame that his brother put together highlight videos on YouTube of him pancaking opponents. He was a two-way standout in high school who dominated on the defensive line. Oregon and Penn State, according to Portela, recruited Nelson to play there.

"At our high school, when you have a kid like Quenton -- a Division I player -- you get him on the field as much as you can," Portela said. "Quenton missed the first four games of his sophomore year because there's a rule in New Jersey that you have to sit out 30 days, and we were loaded with seniors on the line that year. But he still played a lot on both sides of the ball. In Quenton's time there, we lost three games in three years. He's nasty, that's No. 1. I've been saying that since he was a puppy when he came to us. You always knew he had that edge to him, desire to get off blocks and get downfield. But he's only able to do that because of how athletic he is."

Offensive linemen like to stick together and often share some of the same interests. That's why it shouldn't be surprising that Castonzo and Mewhort spent a lot of Saturday nights together last season watching Nelson dominate -- even embarrass at times -- opposing defensive linemen from schools such as Georgia and LSU on his way to being named a unanimous All-American. Little did Castonzo or Mewhort know at the time that they would end up being his teammate as the Colts try to end their years of problems for quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett.

"He just didn't get beat at the college level," Castonzo said. "He'd get hands on people and then wouldn't move. He plays to the whistle. Sometimes you look at [the] field and say guys are nasty when they're really just doing the right thing and being in the right position, able to drive with their legs. A lot of it comes with technique and the ability to finish. I think he does that really, really well. It was pretty impressive watch.

"Guards don't often get taken that high in the draft. I was thinking after we selected him that I hope he plays that good at this level that he played at the college level. Just hope it transfers to the NFL level. So we'll see."