IOWA CITY, Iowa — When it comes to assessing center this spring, it’s like coach Kirk Ferentz is perusing the menu at a restaurant.
The eye first wanders to the go-to option, Keegan Render. The guard was the fallback last year when James Daniels missed the season opener. Iowa knows what it has there.
Then, seeing if something else catches his eye, he looks at Cole Banwart, who was on crutches during bowl prep. The sophomore is intriguing, but unknown.
“He missed a month there,” Ferentz said, “but he’s done some good things, too.”
But Levi Duwa can’t be overlooked. He is an interesting option, having put on 35 pounds as a redshirt and transitioning from the defensive line.
“We are just trying to build some depth and see where it all goes,” Ferentz said.
Here is the thing. Center is the most important position on the offensive line that Iowa is trying to fill, and the best option for the Hawkeyes is if someone forces Ferentz to make a choice other than Render.
This isn’t a knock on Render. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s about his value at guard.
Iowa is replacing two of its three interior offensive lineman — center Daniels and guard Sean Welsh. Beyond Render and his 20 career starts, there isn’t an obvious option to start inside.
The interior line is a sneaky important position to fill. When the Hawkeyes struggled on offense the last few seasons, the inability of the interior line to generate a consistent push up front was a prominent reason.
Strong offensive line play, especially inside, is vital if the Iowa offense is to improve in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
Render’s best position is guard. It’s where he can make the biggest impact.
It’s a lot like Welsh’s biggest value to Iowa was at guard, not tackle, last season. He moved outside after Iowa lost right tackle Ike Boettger for the season in September, but the line played its best when the Hawkeyes slid Welsh back inside during conference play.
Traditionally, Iowa throws its five best linemen on the field and figures out how they work best together. The team isn’t too concerned about positions.
But center is a little different.
Not anyone can play it. The ability to snap and read the defense is part of it.
The Hawkeyes ask more of their centers than other programs. An Iowa center must be athletic and move laterally the same way a basketball defender does.
At the same time, they need to be quick enough to get in front of both linebackers at the second level and strong enough to move a 300-pound defensive tackle.
Daniels checks all the boxes. It’s also why he’ll likely be a first-round NFL draft pick.
Render is more than serviceable. He showed as much when starting in place of an injured Daniels to open the 2017 season.
“It’s mostly the same as guard,” said Render in September. “It’s one set over. All you have to worry about is snapping the ball.”
Banwart and Duwa are young and inexperienced. They may not be in position to start this season.
It looks like a transitional year at center as any potential long-term options are a year away being able to handle the role.
But spring is all about development and breakout players emerging. One of the best surprises for Iowa will be if a backup center shows starting potential. It would allow Iowa to fill an essential position on the line and move Render back to his natural position.
Then, the Hawkeyes are only trying to find one starting guard, an easier position to fill. It could be Ross Reynolds or Levi Paulsen, the two starting guards at the start of spring practice. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a tackle such as Mark Kallenberger play the position.
Is this the likely outcome for the opener? Probably not.
But it’s the best option on the menu for Ferentz. The question is: Will he have the chance to choose it?