Leistikow: In Keegan Render, Iowa football finds 'bright' replacement at crucial position
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Keegan Render won’t say exactly when he knew. But safe to say, he received some reliable intel that he might be changing positions entering his final football season at Iowa.
Before the rest of the world learned that center James Daniels would announce his early entry into the NFL Draft, Render says Daniels — a close friend — told him:
“I’m going to leave. So be ready.”
And the fifth-year senior from Indianola is indeed ready … to be the Hawkeyes’ starting center in 2018.
Of Render’s 20 career college starts, 19 have come at guard. The other? When he was an emergency starter at center against Wyoming when Daniels couldn’t go.
Now, he is Iowa’s Plan A at that position.
“Full speed ahead,” Render says.
At Iowa, center is one of the team's most critical positions. It’s why the Hawkeyes have typically established long-term options there. The long line of multiyear centers under 20th-year coach Kirk Ferentz includes Bruce Nelson, Brian Ferentz, Rafael Eubanks, James Ferentz, Austin Blythe and Daniels.
Being a starting-caliber center requires much more than just snapping the ball between your legs.
“You have to be quick and bright at the same time,” says outgoing four-year starting guard Sean Welsh, who dabbled at center in the spring of 2016 before Daniels ultimately secured the job. “You have to be able to think quick and problem-solve quick.”
Render has those smarts, Welsh says.
“Between the ears, he’s a really bright guy,” Welsh says. “I think he’ll excel at that position.”
Render laughs when told that Welsh gave him high marks for his intellect.
That’s because, as Render tells it, Welsh would sit next to him in the offensive line meeting rooms and sneak looks at his notes and whisper questions about what he was seeing.
Welsh, the permanent team captain with 48 career starts, needing offensive-line guidance?
“Sean was a good guy to learn from on the field,” Render says coyly, “but off the field, I think I helped him more than he helped me.”
That story is probably a good sign that Render — listed at 6-foot-4, 307 pounds — is ready to be plugged into this critical role.
It’s an even better sign that Render says picking up the offensive-line position “actually came easy to me" at Iowa.
That speaks highly to his ability to transition to center, a position that must call out blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage. Render is now tasked to become a leader who can also make sure his messages consistently reach sophomore tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson.
And to call out blocking assignments, you need to know as much about the opposing defense as possible. That means meticulous film study.
“Just watching film; prepping for a game, you’ve got to take into account the whole defense, not just one guy, as the center,” Render says. “And make sure you know what they’re doing.”
One of the best moves assistant Tim Polasek made in his first season as offensive line coach was injecting a left-guard rotation. Render and Ross Reynolds (6-4, 295) traded series last year alongside Daniels. Both guys received valuable experience that will be needed this fall.
“One of the most athletic linemen we’ve got,” Render says of Reynolds, a fellow fifth-year senior. “It’s good for him, I’m happy for him. Getting reps last year is going to help.”
If Render can reliably hold down Iowa's center responsibilities, that’ll give Polasek and the offensive staff more time to find and groom their next multiyear starter at center.
For now, sophomore Cole Banwart (6-4, 296) is on the No. 2 line, with Spencer Williams (6-3, 295) in the mix, too. During Iowa’s open practice Wednesday, redshirt freshman Levi Duwa (6-3, 270) was also taking center reps.
But that’s the future.
The present plan is Render. With his buddy Daniels expected to go in the first or second round of the NFL Draft, he has big shoes to fill.
And although it's not the most exciting position to read about, it’s important to understand how crucial playing proficiently at center is for the Hawkeyes. And that Render's the choice to do it in 2018.
"I have no doubt," Welsh says, "that he’ll do really well.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.