SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Maybe the Bears think Quenton Nelson will be long gone by the time they pick eighth in the draft next month. Or perhaps they know all they need to know about Notre Dame’s exacting, vicious guard, having signed away his college offensive line coach, Harry Hiestand, days after coach Matt Nagy took over the team.
Either way, Nelson said Thursday that it has been quiet. He said he didn’t meet with the Bears at the NFL Scouting Combine and doesn’t have a meeting scheduled at Halas Hall.
“It might be a little surprising,” he said after finishing drills at Notre Dame’s on-campus pro day. “Coach Hiestand, he’s known me since I was an immature freshman who wasn’t good at football until now, being a lot more mature and responsible and doing the right thing and becoming a good player. He knows everything about me.”
It’s certainly enough for the Bears, who sent assistant scouting director Jeff Shiver and others across the state line, to be intrigued. General manager Ryan Pace’s first three first-round picks have boasted otherworldly athleticism at premium positions — wide receiver, outside linebacker and quarterback — but the Bears still have a starting-guard vacancy.
They were stealthy last year, too, before drafting quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
Nelson, for one, wants to play for Hiestand again.
“That’s the reason I came to Notre Dame, because of him and the guys we have in the locker room and the O-line,” he said. “It’s been amazing to be coached by him as a football player, as a man and also as a student here at Notre Dame. He’s always pushed me to be the best at everything I’ve done, and I couldn’t be any more thankful and grateful for him.”
Teams historically have been hesitant to draft interior linemen that high, investing instead in tackles, who traditionally line up against a team’s best pass rusher.
But the 6-5, 329-pounder might be the surest thing in this year’s draft — a guard who has been compared to Steve Hutchinson, a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist this year. He met with Colts general manager Chris Ballard, who holds the sixth pick, after the workout and recently had dinner with the Giants, who pick second.
Landing at either spot would be historic. Since the Jets drafted Dave Cadigan eighth 30 years ago, two players taken in the top eight played guard exclusively: Brandon Scherff, whom the Redskins tried at tackle in preseason practices after picking him fifth in 2015, and Jonathan Cooper, whom the Cardinals took seventh in 2013. Cooper has played for three teams in four seasons.
“Honestly, I don’t know if he even cares too much about it,” Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey, himself a first-round candidate, said of Nelson’s chance at history. “I think he really cares about being the best football player he can be, and wherever that gets him picked is where it gets him picked.
“He probably knows he’s going to be taken off the board pretty quickly . . . but in terms of history, he’s not worried about that.”
Said Irish running back Josh Adams: “It won’t be his first time breaking records. He’s been doing it since he was here.”
More than 100 curious onlookers, standing in a circle that stretched across the width of the indoor football field at the Loftus Sports Center, were eager to see Nelson perform alongside McGlinchey. Wearing shoes the color of his campus’ golden dome, Nelson was as advertised, showing the violence he has displayed in 36 starts worth of game film and picking up new drills quickly.
NOTE: Cornerback Sherrick McManis is expected to return to the Bears, a source confirmed. The longest-tenured Bear, McManis played a team-high 64.2 percent of the special-teams snaps and was a captain.
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