At 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds, it’s hard not to immediately notice the presence of Quenton Nelson. And then you watch what he can do on the football field among fellow behemoths and somehow, he stands out even more.

The scouting reports on Nelson, an All-American guard for Notre Dame, for the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft routinely feature words and phrases such as “amazing”, “dominating”, “destroys”, “immense power”, “All-Pro” and “Hall of Fame potential”. He is widely regarded as one of the top-five players in the entire draft regardless of position and a can’t-miss prospect.

While the national conversation revolves around quarterbacks Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, Nelson has received more attention than an interior lineman usually gets this time of year. An offensive guard hasn’t been drafted in the top five in almost 20 years but Nelson is so good that he is redefining how talent evaluators and NFL general managers view the position.

As people who didn’t watch Nelson throughout his college career at Notre Dame become familiar with what makes him great, those in the Shore Conference are certainly not surprised. For most, he made an instant impact the first time they laid eyes on him as a member of Red Bank Catholic’s football team.

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

“We scrimmaged them my first year as a head coach,” said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz. “He’s the greatest offensive lineman in high school I’ve ever seen, and I can’t imagine there’s been anyone better.”

“He’s the best high school football player I’ve ever seen,” said Manasquan head coach Jay Price, whose teams squared off against RBC three times during Nelson’s career with the Caseys. “He has the whole package. When we played them we were telling our kids we’d be seeing him play on Sundays for a long time, so it’s not surprising at all to see where he’s at now.”

Nelson is one of a handful of former Shore Conference players with a realistic chance of either being drafted or signing with an NFL team as an undrafted free agent. Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki, a former star at Southern Regional, is projected as a late first-round or early second-round selection. Monmouth University safety Mike Basile (Brick Memorial) could be a late-round draft pick or at the least a priority free agent immediately following the draft.

The 2018 NFL Draft will be held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas from Thursday, April 26 to Saturday, April 28. The first round will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. on Thursday night and continue at 7 p.m. Friday with rounds two and three. The draft concludes with rounds four through seven beginning Saturday at noon. Coverage will be available on NFL Network, ESPN/ABC, Fox and ESPN2.

In mock drafts, Nelson is projected to be taken anywhere from No. 5 to No. 10 even though he is rated as either the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 overall prospect along with Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and North Carolina State edge rusher Bradley Chubb. The highest NFL draft pick from the Shore Conference was former Middletown South and University of Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno, who went No. 12 to the Denver Broncos in 2009 draft, and Nelson figures to break that mark.

Nelson began his high school football career at Holmdel before transferring to Red Bank Catholic for his sophomore season. The first time he stepped foot on the practice field it was obvious he was no ordinary high school lineman.

“You could tell right away he was different because he was so much bigger than everyone else,” said former Red Bank Catholic head coach Jim Portela. “He was probably 6-foot-4, 250 pounds at the time (as a sophomore). You don’t get kids like that showing up on your doorstep every day.”

During Nelson’s time at RBC, the Caseys went 30-3 and were the No. 1 team in the Shore all three years. Nelson was, of course, a major reason why. The Caseys punished teams on the ground and Nelson could usually be seeing dominating opposing defensive lines. He also played defense and was a one-man wrecking crew on the other side of the ball. If Nelson was on the field he owned the trenches no matter where he lined up.

(Photo by Bill Normile)

“One thing that has always stood out in my mind was the look on our safeties’ faces coming off the field saying, ‘coach, 56 is killing me!’,” Price said. “And our first thought is, ‘he’s an offensive lineman, what do you mean?’.”

“It was Blaine Birch playing safety at the time and he’s complaining an offensive lineman is killing him, and then you go watch the film and Nelson’s just murdering him. He’s got 15 yards to avoid this monster coming at him and he just couldn’t do it, and all you could do was shrug your shoulders. The next year Birch is playing linebacker and he asks me if Nelson is still playing and I say, ‘yes, he is, are you ready?’. And he says ‘I just hope he’s still looking for the safety’.”

Coming out of high school Nelson was ranked as the No. 6 prospect at offensive tackle and the No. 70 prospect overall by 247 Sports and signed with Notre Dame. After taking a redshirt season during his freshman year, Nelson won the starting job at left guard as a redshirt sophomore and never looked back. He started 11 of 12 games in 2015 to help the Irish average 207.6 yards rushing per game and started all 12 games in 2016 en route to being named an Associated Press Second Team All-American and claiming the Notre Dame Offensive Lineman of the Year award.

This past season Nelson started all 13 games and turned in an incredible season on his way to being selected as a First Team All-American and being a finalist for the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman on either offense or defense). Nelson was also named Notre Dame’s team MVP, making him the first offensive lineman to win the award since 1975 and just the third in school history. Incredibly, he did not surrender a sack or a quarterback hit and allowed just two hurries all season. He allowed just two sacks in his entire college career and both came during his redshirt freshman season.

Nelson has the size, strength, technique and athletic ability to be a great NFL player, but what really sets him apart is a determination to dominate that manifests itself in the form of a mean streak between the lines. At the high school level, it took him from great to unstoppable and at the college level it made him one of the best players in the nation.

“What really stood out to me during his high school career was how well he played against the best players,” Portela said. “He would get hyped for the competition. He wanted to test himself and that’s what set him apart. That showed me he wasn’t just going to play (in college), he was going to excel. He’s such a solid guy and is great in the locker room. Whichever team takes him he’ll be a leader for them and they’ll be proud to have him.”

“The thing you saw as a high school kid was his maturity,” Price said. “If I was a GM I’d be thinking that – like he did at Notre Dame – he’s going to change somebodies’ locker room. There’s going to be a sense of urgency in there. As a Giants fan, I would love to see them draft him.”

On Thursday night in Arlington, Texas, Nelson will likely become the highest-drafted player ever from the Shore Conference and no one in this area will be the least bit surprised.

“I saw Knowshon play and I saw Jabrill Peppers play and they were dynamite, but to me, Quenton is the best high school football player I’ve ever seen,” Portela said. “He’s a guy that, if everybody’s right, will play 10-to-12 years and could be a Hall of Famer. He’s got that type of potential. We’re all just really happy for him and happy that here’s a kid fulfilling his potential. He didn’t waste any of it.”

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When Mike Gesicki was just an eighth-grader, Southern Regional head football coach Chuck Donohue Sr. knew he was getting a generational athlete the following season. Gesicki was the best at just about everything he did and dominated at not one, not two, but three sports during his time with the Rams. The things he saw Gesicki do before high school were a sign of what was to come.

“In eighth grade, he jumped 6-foot-5 at the county meet and he was playing basketball against college guys, so that’s the kind of kid we were getting,” Donohue said.

Whereas Nelson is a dominator at the line of scrimmage who intimidates opponents with his power and skill set, Gesicki is a 6-foot-6 matchup nightmare at tight end who blossomed into a possible first-round pick over the course of his career at Penn State. Heading into high school, however, Gesicki was more focused on basketball and had thoughts of quitting football and not even playing volleyball. He ended up doing all three and football turned out to be his future.

Mike Gesicki (88) during the first quarter of Penn State vs. Maryland game on October 8, 2016.
Photo by Mark Selders

Gesicki was a three-sport standout for Southern and when he graduated he was the Rams’ all-time leading scorer in basketball, the career leader in blocks in volleyball and the career leader in receiving yards. He helped the Rams’ volleyball team win back-to-back state titles his junior and senior years and as a junior helped the Rams’ football team reach the second sectional championship game in program history. As a junior, he set a school record with 50 receptions for 958 yards and 9 touchdowns.

In high school football, Gesicki had a physical advantage against pretty much anyone he lined up against. Even when he went up against a future NFL player he made an impact. During the 2012 NJSIAA South Jersey Group V playoffs Southern squared off against Eastern in the semifinals. The Vikings were quarterbacked by Tom Flacco, the brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Eastern’s star player was a defensive back/wide receiver named Eli Woodard, who was the No. 1 prospect in New Jersey and committed to Ohio State. Gesicki had three catches for 97 yards against Woodard as the two matched up one-on-one all night. The Rams won a thriller, 30-27, to reach the title game. Woodard would later change his last name to Apple, was drafted No. 10 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Giants and remains on the team.

Even against other great athletes, what gave Gesicki the edge was his incredible leaping ability, and that fact remains today and is why he is a coveted player at the professional level.

“His development from his sophomore to senior year was significant in football, and really in all three sports he played,” Oizerowitz said. “It’s unique that he was that dominant in all three sports and that he got much better in all three. He was a lot to handle. You could gameplan for him and prepare for him; you could play bracket coverage but it didn’t matter because he could out-jump you and out-run you. He was a freak. He’s the best high school guy I’ve seen high-point a ball.”

In a game against Toms River East his senior year he made an incredible play to haul in a pass among three Toms River East defenders. He reached up with one hand and snagged the pass just as a defensive back was swooping in for what he figured would be an interception. The other two players were boxed out by Gesicki and had no play on the ball. It was three against one and the three didn’t stand a chance.

Mike Gesicki on the football field (Southern Regional Athletic Dept)

“The thing about Michael is he has great timing,” Donohue said. “He can go up and get the ball and has always caught the ball with his hands, and that’s really important in the NFL.”

Gesicki chose Penn State despite the school being subject to sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal that rocked the university. Gesicki was recruited by Bill O’Brien but never played under him as O’Brien left to become the head coach of the Houston Texans following the 2013 season. The Nittany Lions hired James Franklin as head coach in January of 2014. Gesicki remained committed to Penn State and his faith in the program would pay off handsomely.

Gesicki played in all 13 games with one start as a freshman, then played in all 13 games with eight starts as a sophomore. He had a breakout season as a junior with 48 catches for 679 yards and five touchdowns, leading all Big Ten tight ends in catches, yards and touchdowns. He was a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection.

He concluded his record-setting college career with a school single-season tight end record 57 receptions for 563 yards and nine touchdowns. Gesicki was a Second-Team All-American by SB Nation and Sporting News, First-Team All-Big Ten selection by Pro Football Focus and was a finalist for the Mackey Award (nation’s top tight end). He finished his career with a least one catch in 27 straight games and ranks ninth all-time in Penn State history with a tight end-record 129 catches. His 1,481 receiving yards are 17th in school history and his 15 receiving touchdowns are No. 9 all-time in school history.

“We were really impressed by Gesicki’s athleticism and his ability to catch the ball,” said Brick Memorial head coach Walt Currie. “In high school, you didn’t necessarily look at him and automatically think of him as a pro guy, but you could look at Mike and see his best football was ahead of him. When you saw he was going to Penn State it was obvious they saw something above and beyond, and once you started seeing him on TV and he was doing really well you knew he could play at the next level.”

Gesicki’s time will come this weekend whether it be in the first round on Thursday night or on day two of the draft. If he and Nelson are both selected in the first round it will mark the second time two Shore Conference players have been taken in the first round, joining Moreno and Donald Brown (RBC/UConn), who went 12 and 27, respectively, in the 2009 NFL Draft.

“I’m so happy for the kid because he’s always done things right,” Donohue said. “He did a lot for our school and always gave his time and effort. He always handled himself well and always comes back to school when he’s home. He never forgot where he came from.”

“I talked to him Monday and I know he’s excited. This time next week he’ll be heading to training camp someplace and that will be a neat thing and great for our community.”

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Mike Basile’s career arc didn’t begin in the same place as Nelson and Gesicki, but he also finds himself in position to be on an NFL roster by the weekend. One of Monmouth University’s all-time greats, Basile put together a tremendous career at the FCS level to become the latest Hawk to garner draft interest.

After a great high school career at Brick Memorial where he played both running back and safety, Basile picked Monmouth University and made an instant impact with the Hawks upon his arrival. He finished his career as Monmouth’s all-time leader with 433 career tackles, and his 285 solo tackles are also first all-time at Monmouth and in Big South Conference history. He is the first four-time All-Conference player in Monmouth history and is the only Monmouth player to earn First Team AP All-America honors, which he earned this past season.

Mike Basile (Monmouth Athletics)

“When he started his freshman year and was a Jerry Rice Award finalist as the best freshman in the country you started to see if he continued on that path where it could take him,” Currie said. “Two summers later he came to our weight room and he looked like the Terminator. He had really grown and was really put together. He had a fantastic sophomore year and it blossomed from there. Our hopes that had could possibly make it to the next level went from ‘maybe’ during his sophomore year to the point where now it really should happen. He should get a shot. He was the best defensive back in the nation at that (FCS) level.”

The question marks around Basile center more around certain measurables and the fact that he’s coming from an FCS program. His game tape is fantastic, however, and he’s hoping to get the chance to prove that’s the more important factor.

(Photo by Bill Normile).

“It’s pretty cool and I’m so happy for Mike and his family,” Currie said. “He’s done a great job progressing, even from middle school, to where he’s at right now. It’s been an exciting progression for Mike and I know he’s been excited about this opportunity. Hopefully, it comes to fruition. He’s always been a high-character kid and he certainly deserves it.”

Another local player to watch for is Lakewood’s Tyrice Beverette, who starred as a defensive back at Stony Brook and is also a candidate to land as a priority free agent.

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.

 

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