IOWA CITY, Iowa — The best move for center James Daniels is the worst one for Iowa. Daniels declared for the NFL draft on Friday morning, leaving the Hawkeyes with a gaping hole on the interior of their offensive line.
Daniels made the right call. He received a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, according to Blair Sanderson of Rivals. A second-round selection can earn $4 million-to-$7 million on a rookie contract. A football player has a short shelf life, and someone with a history of knee injuries, like Daniels, is well aware of that fact.
It’s hard to blame a player in his position — even a 20-year-old — for wanting to receive a paycheck for every remaining season he has left in his body.
The Hawkeyes celebrated Daniels’ news. Sending a junior to the NFL draft should help on the recruiting front.
— Tyler Barnes (@TylerBarnesIOWA) January 5, 2018
But it exacerbates an already existing problem. The last few years, the Hawkeyes’ run-game inconsistencies have been tied in large part to the play of the interior linemen.
Run to success
When the Hawkeyes move the ball on the ground, like they did to the tune of 313 rushing yards against Nebraska in November, the center and guards are clearing out running lanes. When they don’t, the Hawkeyes don’t tend to win. They are 28-1 when rushing for 100 yards or more since 2015 and 5-11 when failing to hit the century mark.
Senior Sean Welsh was already heading to the pros. Now Daniels is joining him and Iowa must find a solution to its interior line play without two of its best linemen.
Center is nearly as vital of a position in the Iowa line as left tackle. Daniels’ unique combination of size, strength and athleticism allowed him to pull and execute blocks others at the position just can’t handle. This is part of the reason why the NFL is so high on Daniels.
Who is the next center?
There is no obvious replacement at center. Keegan Render’s name will come up as a possibility. He started the season opener against Wyoming when Daniels sat out with a knee injury.
But 18 of his 19 career starts came at guard, and the Hawkeyes may need him there. Iowa typically plays its the best five linemen and isn’t afraid to sort out positions after the fact.
Cole Banwart was listed as the backup center for the bowl game, but Banwart was on crutches for the one practice media attended in December. Spencer Williams and Lucas LeGrand are also options at center.
Guard is just as big of a concern with Iowa’s inability to consistently control the line. The names above are options there, as is Levi Paulsen, who started the Pinstripe Bowl at right tackle, and Ross Reynolds. Even Mark Kallenberger, coming off a redshirt season, could play his way into the rotation.
— James Daniels (@jamsdans) January 5, 2018
It’s way too early to know which players will make up the interior of the offensive line next season. The spring semester and winter workouts are yet to kick off. Coaches will take a long look at the line during spring practice.
Center and guard are positions with more questions than answers right now. Two things are certain, though.
First, the interior line is a pressing concern, one the Hawkeyes must solve if they’re to succeed in 2018.
Secondly, Daniels’ departure only heightens that concern.