IOWA CITY, Iowa — During an NFL combine interview, a pro scout asked James Daniels to draw a formation.
He quickly started sketching out ’21’ personnel. He put two wide receivers, one tight end and a tailback on the field. When he added the fullback the scout spoke up.
He never saw a player do that before and thought it was cool. The reaction didn’t surprise Daniels.
“There are a few teams whose base formation is 21 personnel,” Daniels said. “If you think about it in the Big Ten it’s probably us, Wisconsin and Michigan State. That’s three out of 14 teams. The entire NCAA is like that.”
Iowa is old school, relying on a pro-formation, zone-blocking scheme led by a former NFL offensive line coach in Kirk Ferentz. It’s the antithesis of the spread revolution which has overtaken the sport, as Daniels’ story demonstrates.
It’s the ideal breeding ground for future NFL offensive linemen. Sixteen Iowa offensive linemen heard their name called at the draft since Ferentz took over in 1999. Four potential draftees are part of the 2018 NFL Draft, which starts April 26.
Between Ferentz’s reputation and Iowa’s ability to churn out technically proficient linemen, how much does it help a player come draft day to play for Iowa?
“Teams know what they are getting,” Inside the Pylon draft analyst Jeff Feyerer said. “The way they are coached and the way they come out fundamentally sound, that goes a long way to show why [Iowa is] a pretty reliable source of offensive linemen.”
The Kirk Ferentz brand
In November, Daniels was just a 20-year-old college center. He wasn’t on the radar of 2018 draft analysts.
Fast forward to January when he declared for the NFL draft. The surprising move made sense once Ferentz broke down Daniels’ game.
“Just I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a more talented center prospect,” Ferentz said. “That includes my time in the NFL.
“He’s got some skills that are just really unusual. And he’s a really intelligent guy. And one interesting thing about him, you get the feedback from the NFL folks. That’s strictly off film. They haven’t had a chance to investigate the kind of person he is and his intelligence.”
Ferentz doesn’t hand out praise, especially about offensive linemen, lightly. It was an indication Daniels is likely an early-round draft pick.
Ferentz played high school football for and learned the craft from Joe Moore, an offensive line coach legend. Ferentz coached the offensive line at Pittsburgh and Iowa in the 1980s, where 11 of his players were NFL draft picks, including three in the first round.
He spent 1993-98 seasons coaching offensive line in the NFL for Cleveland and Baltimore before becoming the coach at Iowa, where he put an emphasis on the offensive line and running the ball, in 1999.
Some NFL executives, coaches and scouts consider Ferentz one of the brightest minds when it comes to coaching and developing offensive line talent, especially for zone blocking.
“Nobody does it better than Kirk Ferentz with the offensive line,” Ourlads general manager and former NFL scout Dan Shonka said. “He spends as much time with those guys as any of the offensive line coaches do. I think that is a big plus.”
The results back it up. Offensive linemen make up 25.4 percent of Iowa’s draft picks since 2000.
Only two programs have sent more offensive linemen to the NFL in that span than the Hawkeyes.
Most offensive linemen drafted in NFL since 2000
The Iowa traits
NFL general managers and scouts like Iowa because they know what they’re getting in a player. Every player arrives with the basic skills. Iowa linemen tend to be smaller and more athletic.
As a whole, they are technically sound. It’s a simple thing, but it goes a long way with NFL coaches and talent evaluators.
“They don’t have that much more learning to do,” Feyerer said. “The fact they were well taught, you aren’t having to re-teach some of those fundamental things that are not innate in every offensive lineman coming into the draft.”
Shonka points out a football player takes a big step toward a lengthy pro career by mastering technique. For an offensive lineman, that requires an understanding of hand, head and foot placement.
Every Iowa practice focuses on those basic, yet vital, parts of line play.
“It’s very beneficial to play at a school like Iowa,” Shonka said. “It’s like in kindergarten, you are doing certain things all the time, all the way through high school in your school system. At Iowa, you come in as a freshman and if you are an offensive lineman, you are going to have all those reps on technique for five years.”
No one prospect in this draft class better exemplifies the prototypical Iowa traits than Daniels. Strong game film and an impressive combine performance make Daniels a possible first-round pick.
“He is very quick,” Feyerer said. “The athleticism is up there. He looks so fluid in his movements, getting to the next level on pulls. He is smart. He rarely gets beaten. He is always playing through the whistle. I would be shocked if he’s not a starter from Day 1.”
Iowa’s most successful NFL offensive lineman under Ferentz is six-time pro bowler Marshal Yanda, a former third-round pick. His time at Iowa helped him become one of the best guards in the NFL. It’s a point he’s quick to share with Iowa recruiting targets.
Guard Brandon Scherff made the Pro Bowl the last two seasons and offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Bryan Bulaga have started for a combined 13 seasons since 2010.
Not every Iowa prospect turns into an NFL star. Strength at the point of attack is often a concern. It certainly was for Reiff when he entered the league in 2012.
But Shonka believes strength isn’t as big an issue for teams now as it was in the past.
“One thing about zone blockers is you are more concerned about their feet and their hand and head placement,” Shonka said. “It’s not like the old days where you fired off [and just pushed people back].”
With spread offenses prevalent in college football, it’s becoming harder for pro teams to develop offensive line talent. Linemen in spread offenses start in two-point stances and spend more time screening off defenders instead of moving them off the line than pro teams do.
Players from pro-style teams such as Iowa can become more enticing to a general manager because there is less concern about their adjustment to the NFL.
“The limited time that pro coaches have to work with the guys because of the collective bargaining agreement, especially if you are a zone-blocking team, the more experience a guy has in pro zone-blocking techniques the better off you are,” Shonka said.
The NFL draft
NFL front office executives and scouts let players know they value how Iowa develops players.
But they don’t do it in a direct manner.
No one comes out and says it, but guard Sean Welsh heard more times than he can count about being a hard worker or his strong fundamentals during the draft evaluation process.
“Just a lot of intangible compliments,” Welsh said.
The biggest compliment for the players — and the program — comes on draft day.
“Guys get drafted even later in the draft just because they are knowledgeable in the techniques and things and they get put on practice squads and can develop,” Shonka said.
Center Austin Blythe followed that path. Indianapolis selected him in the seventh round in 2016. He is entering his third season and carved out a role as a reserve with the Los Angeles Rams.
New England signed tackle Cole Croston as a rookie free agent in 2017. Croston worked his way onto the 53-man roster for the AFC champion in his first pro season.
Having a lineman selected who missed most of his senior season because of injury would speak volumes about how much value the NFL places on Iowa prospects.
“I think any team that takes a chance on me, they’re going to get a versatile guy, he’s going to learn the offense, he’s going to learn how to play multiple positions,” Boettger told Land of 10 in March. “When I get thrown in the fire, I’m going to know how to react, and I’m going to know how to do my job out there.”
Welsh is a mid-to-late round prospect. A disappointing NFL combine hurt his draft stock, but his versatility is a bonus. Shonka believes some teams could see him at center.
Daniels is the most sought after of the bunch.
He knows Iowa helped prepare him for his pro future and it extends beyond having Ferentz as a coach.
“There are a lot of places in the NCAA that don’t have mandatory body weights and just having to be in a 4-pound limit with goal weight,” Daniels said. [Playing at Iowa] takes a lot of discipline and a lot of things like that translate over [from] Iowa. It’s why a lot of NFL scouts like Iowa so much because of how structured the program is here.”
That, and because the players still know what a fullback is.