Iowa football: How will Hawkeyes replace NFL-bound James Daniels on offensive line?

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

The interior of Iowa’s offensive line took a major hit Friday when junior center James Daniels announced he was entering the NFL Draft.

The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Ohio native was an honorable mention all-Big Ten Conference selection and a stalwart on a Hawkeye line that was named the nation’s best in 2016. Along with the departure of senior guard Sean Welsh, it arguably deprives Iowa of its two best offensive linemen in 2018.

James Daniels has 24 career starts for Iowa, most of them at center, and has played in 35 games in a three-year career.

The search for replacements for Daniels and Welsh will consume the spring practice sessions and perhaps all of the August lead-up to Iowa’s Sept. 1 season opener vs. Northern Illinois.

There are no obvious replacements for Daniels, who started all but one game in 2017. Junior guard Keegan Render slid over to replace him in that one and could become the permanent center this year, but that would just leave the Hawkeyes with a second hole to fill at guard.

A closer look at Iowa’s early options:

  • Junior Ross Reynolds was the third guard in the rotation for most of 2017 and would seem to be a natural to fill Welsh’s spot this fall. His one career start came in last year’s season opener vs. Wyoming, at left guard while Render played center. The Waukee native could pair with Render to give the Hawkeyes a veteran presence surrounding whoever winds up snapping the football.
  • Sophomore Levi Paulsen made his second career start in Iowa’s Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College on Dec. 27. That came at tackle, in place of the suspended Alaric Jackson. But Paulsen’s previous start was at guard in 2016, and that is where the 6-5, 305-pound Moville native has spent most of his time at Iowa. If Paulsen can handle one guard spot and Reynolds the other, Render could line up at center and that would be Iowa’s most experienced possible lineup.
  • Redshirt freshman Cole Banwart was listed as Daniels’ backup by the end of the season. The Algona graduate is even the same size as Daniels. But he appeared in just two games, both blowout Hawkeye wins, so no doubt is in need of a great deal of seasoning before coach Kirk Ferentz would trust him to be a starter. He will have seven months to prove himself.
  • Likewise, redshirt freshman Spencer Williams of Cedar Falls was second string on the depth chart at center during summer camp. Daniels even chose to room with Williams at that time, a signal that perhaps he is the heir apparent. But Williams missed some time last August with injury and also appeared in only two blowout wins. He and Banwart figure to battle it out to be the future starter at center, but will there time come this fall, or are they a year away?
  • Kyler Schott, a walk-on who was also a wrestling start at North Linn High School, redshirted last season and would need a great spring camp to work his way into the conversation. But Ferentz does have a fondness for linemen with wrestling backgrounds.
  • The Hawkeyes will also gain three-star recruit Jeffrey Jenkins of Crystal Lake, Illinois. His natural position is guard, and, at 6-4, 275 pounds, would need to put on weight and add strength. But Daniels was one of the rare offensive linemen to play as true freshmen under Ferentz. Last year, Tristan Wirfs did the same at tackle. Iowa is not in a position to rule anybody out, so perhaps Jenkins will get his shot.
Iowa center Spencer Williams runs drills during the open practice on Kids Day at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.

Whatever happens, it is a big challenge for second-year offensive line coach Tim Polasek. Last year, he had to deal with constant turmoil at the tackle spots, due to season-ending injuries to seniors Ike Boettger and Boone Myers, plus the suspension of Jackson. Five different players made at least one start at tackle.

The interior of the line, though, was relatively stable. Welsh started 10 games at right guard (the other three at right tackle in place of Boettger). Render started 12 games at guard and one at center.

Daniels started 12 games at center and was impressive enough to get the attention of NFL scouts.

Finding his replacement will not be easy, and it will go a long way in determining how successful the Hawkeyes are in 2018.