INDIANAPOLIS — Chris Ballard only went to one Pro Day this entire offseason: Notre Dame's.
It wasn't that Ballard didn't want to go to other Pro Days to check out other top prospects — in a normal offseason he would be flying all over the country — but with the Colts hiring a new head coach in Frank Reich on Feb. 11, and then finalizing his coaching staff less than three weeks later, time was of the essence this time around.
So on March 22, with everything in place, the second-year Colts general manager made the two-hour, 45-minute drive straight up U.S. 31 from Indianapolis to South Bend to check out the Fighting Irish's top prospects.
The cream of the crop, of course, was unanimous All-American guard Quenton Nelson, considered by many to be the top offensive lineman to enter the NFL Draft in many, many years.
Five days prior, the Colts had made a trade with the New York Jets that moved Indy down three spots to No. 6-overall in the first round (but also netted the team two second-round picks this year, and another next year); Ballard only made such a move knowing he would still get either Nelson, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb — and possibly a fourth, as-yet-unnamed player — with their top pick.
And when Ballard stepped on the field at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and Loftus Sports Center, he felt it — something he had only felt with the elite of the elite prospects in years past; guys like Adrian Peterson and Dez Bryant.
"Sometimes there is just something about seeing a guy live," Ballard said. "And I got a chance to see Quenton live, watch him play and also watch him work out. He's a guy you can feel. You can feel him."
Fast forward to Thursday night. After a surprisingly uneventful first few picks of the draft in which Barkley went to the New York Giants at No. 2 overall, the Denver Broncos were about to announce the selection of Chubb with the fifth pick.
By that time, however, Ballard was already on the phone.
Nelson was on the other line, sitting down with family, friends and former teammates at his parents' Northern Indiana home.
Nelson knew right then: he was the newest member of the Colts.
Nelson comes in right away as a starting candidate at either guard position, where he'll not only be tasked with keeping quarterback Andrew Luck's jersey clean, but he'll be counted on to become the cornerstone of the Colts' running game.
With Reich calling the plays in the Colts' new fast-paced offense, Nelson is the perfect piece to plug and play and make an immediate difference.
"You win games up front," Ballard told reporters shortly after Nelson's selection on Thursday night. "I mentioned that last week to you all and Quenton Nelson we thought was the best offensive lineman in the draft. He's got everything we want in terms of character, work ethic, toughness, passion for the game and he is going to be great for this team and great for the city of Indianapolis. So we're extremely excited to get him."
When Ballard and Reich popped in Nelson's game film over the past couple months, they saw a "nasty," "tough" lineman that's "everything we want to stand for as a team," Ballard said.
Reich saw a player solid in pass protection, but as good in run blocking as he's ever seen coming out of the college game, especially when he pulled from his guard position and became a lead blocker off the edge.
"He was just productive in every kind of run scheme there is – in zone-run scheme, in gap-run scheme," Reich said. "We charted him as a puller. I mean his productivity when pulling was just so far greater than anything we've ever seen."
Reich said it's very apparent Nelson is also "instinctive."
"I mean, not only big and tough and strong and has all the football character, but when we started talking, we want guys who are instinctive football players that process it quickly and find ways to be playmakers," he continued.
So, yeah, by the time Ballard had started the drive north to Notre Dame's Pro Day on March 22, Nelson was already on the Colts' short list of "premium players" that the team felt could be selected at No. 6 overall and come in and make an immediate impact.
But getting that chance to get an up-close-and-personal look at Nelson sealed his fate.
"When you go to a school and you see a good player, you always get a vision for how he would fit on your team," Ballard said. "But I would say more it was really, to be honest with you, after I got done with the workout, I'm watching him work out, I was like, 'Wow, man. This guy would be a great Colt.'"