Freshman James Daniels getting crash course in Tackle 101

Chad Leistikow
Iowa offensive lineman James Daniels, right, engages with an Illinois defender as Jordan Canzeri runs by for some of his 256 rushing yards Saturday in the Hawkeyes' 29-20 win.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Kirk Ferentz knows the margin for error is rapidly approaching zero for his depleted offensive line.

“You're always hoping the … proverbial roof doesn't collapse,” Iowa’s head football coach said Tuesday. “It was pretty close the other day.”

The context of that answer was surrounding a question about James Daniels, who on Saturday at Northwestern is slated to become the first true freshman in Ferentz’s 17 years to start at offensive tackle. Daniels, who turned 18 a day after the Iowa State game, is replacing right tackle Ike Boettger (left ankle) at a position he’s hardly practiced until this week.

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After left tackle Boone Myers (stinger) got hurt vs. North Texas on Sept. 26, the coaches had to make contingency plans in case they lost another one. And they really like Daniels, who enrolled in January as a 17-year-old freshman from Warren, Ohio.

Enrolling early isn’t something Ferentz encourages (“I still think kids probably ought to go to the prom, maybe see their classmates graduate”), but Daniels was a unique case because his older brother, running back LeShun, was on campus. Plus, James is a fast learner.

“Did an outstanding job in the classroom this first semester,” Ferentz said. “Really practiced well. He just seems to handle things pretty adeptly, so that's a rare trait.”

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Daniels got on-the-job training Saturday after Boettger went out early in the second half of a 29-20 win against Illinois. On one of his first plays at tackle, he was flagged for holding Dawuane Smoot, who sacked C.J. Beathard for a 4-yard loss anyway.

“I can’t imagine being in his shoes. But he went out there. Wasn’t nervous,” right guard Jordan Walsh said. “Honestly, I looked to my left in the huddle and saw James and was like, ‘Alright, let’s go James.’ Gave him a slap on the back, and he went out there and did his job.”

Daniels, like the line, improved as the day went on as Jordan Canzeri rushed for 180 of his 256 yards in the second half. On Tuesday, named Brian Ferentz national offensive line coach of the week.

"We'll just have to keep practicing several guys at several spots," Kirk Ferentz said, "because depending on where the water starts coming in the boat, that's where we've got to make the repairs and shift guys."

Enter Daniels: 6-foot-4, 285 pounds and someone Walsh called "very athletic." He's on the Tackle 101 crash course this week as the No. 17 Hawkeyes (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten Conference) encounter No. 20 Northwestern (5-1, 1-1), which features two senior defensive ends – including 290-pound Dean Lowry on the left side, opposite Daniels.

Until Saturday, Iowa's top recruit in the Class of 2015 played exclusively as a backup guard. He was recruited as a center.

Saturday, Ferentz hopes the five starting offensive lineman – from left to right, Cole Croston, Sean Welsh, Austin Blythe, Walsh and Daniels – can go the distance. That was evident after a question about whether new No. 2 left tackle Ryan Ward was next man in,

“We have several candidates right now," Ferentz said. "I don't mean it disrespectfully to those guys, but I hope we don't have to see them on Saturday.”