INDIANAPOLIS — The newest group of former Iowa football players has its eyes focused on the future, with little time to look back.
These players are now commodities in the NFL draft echo chamber, almost nameless and faceless until they hear their names called in late April. That’s a difficult existence for players preparing for job interviews.
But those same players also know who was behind them in Iowa City and now has a chance to replace them at key positions. At the NFL combine last week, multiple Iowa players discussed the holdovers connected to their position group and clued in reporters on who to watch this spring.
NFL hopeful Sean Welsh worked alongside senior Keegan Render along the offensive line the last two years and both mostly were a guard tandem. Render, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 310 pounds, has a chance to take a step forward like many Iowa senior offensive linemen before him, Welsh said.
“Yeah, I really do,” Welsh said. “He’s another one of those guys that’s really bright. He’s very smart. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see him at center. I don’t know what plans they have in store, but he’s really bright.”
Render has 20 career starts, including the last eight games in 2017 at left guard. Render replaced an injured James Daniels at center in the season opener, and he could anchor that position for his final season, as well.
Welsh opened the first two games last fall at right guard but moved outside to right tackle when fellow senior Ike Boettger was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. After three games, Welsh shifted back to right guard and Tristan Wirfs became the first true freshman under coach Kirk Ferentz to play right tackle. Wirfs started seven games at right tackle before moving to left tackle for the Pinstripe Bowl.
“Tristan made huge strides this past year,” Welsh said. “He kind of had to grow up quick. I thought he had a great year in terms of his growth.”
Running back Akrum Wadley joined Welsh, Daniels, linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Josh Jackson at the NFL combine last week. Wadley had a view of his offensive line on every carry and was impressed both with Wirfs and the team’s other freshman tackle, Alaric Jackson.
“They’re going to be really good players,” Wadley said. “The sky’s the limit with those two. They started the whole season. They’re going to learn from this season. Everything is going to be progressing for them.”
Iowa must replace 122 starts among its three departed outbound linebackers. Jewell, who opened 43 games and was a first-team All-American last year, saw potential with the four holdovers at both the middle and weakside linebacker slots.
“I think there’s a couple guys that I know of that we left behind after this year, not like transfers or JUCO guys that I really honed into after the season,” Jewell said. “There’s Jack Hockaday, Kristian Welch and then Amani Jones and Aaron Mends. Those are the four guys I look at when I look back on the inside. But there’s also some other guys that can always come up. It just depends on what kind of spring ball they have, what kind of effort they want to put into it.”
Hockaday played the majority of a 2016 game at middle linebacker after Jewell was disqualified for targeting. Jones and Mends battled Bo Bower for the weakside linebacker slot in 2016 before Bower won it. Welch has practiced all three positions but became Jewell’s primary backup at middle linebacker last fall.
Running back has its own challenges this year with Wadley and James Butler heading to the NFL. Wadley, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards for two consecutive seasons, touted what the holdovers can do with strength coach Chris Doyle.
“Coach Doyle, he’s probably the best trainer,” Wadley said. “He’s going to train guys like Toren [Young]; Toren is going to be a monster next season. You’ll see Ivory [Kelly-Martin] and Toks [Akinribade]. Them guys got the potential to do it, and I really think they’re going to be better than me. I wish them to be better than me.”
Young ran for 193 yards at 4.3 yards per carry with 2 touchdowns last season. Kelly-Martin ran for 184 yards and 3 scores on 9.2 yards per carry. Akinribade’s status remains undetermined after he redshirted last fall and had a serious health issue in December.
Overall, Iowa’s NFL-bound players are excited for the program’s future.
“I think they’ll be all right,” Welsh said. “They’ve got a lot of great heads in that room.”