Iowa grooming James Daniels to be next man in at center

Chad Leistikow

LOS ANGELES – After Austin Blythe plays his last game as a Hawkeye in Friday’s Rose Bowl against No. 5 Stanford, it’ll be next man in at center.

Or, really, next kid in.

James Daniels, a true freshman who was 17 for Iowa's first two games of the season, could be the leading candidate to take over in the middle of the Hawkeyes’ line in 2016.

“A perfect fit for center,” Blythe said Tuesday. “Just the way he does it in practice, you see him when he takes center reps, he's so natural at it.”

Blythe, 23, would know. He was Daniels’ roommate in camp and on Iowa’s 13 road trips despite the age difference. That was by design. Iowa likes to pair veterans “we think do things right,” offensive line coach Brian Ferentz says, with the newcomers.

Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman James Daniels (78) blocks during practice Monday at the Stub Hub Center.
Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman James Daniels (78) is interviewed during Rose Bowl media day Tuesday at the LA Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Blythe’s goal throughout the fall was to impart his experience and wisdom on the hungry-to-learn Daniels.

“Hopefully I've done that; I don't know,” Blythe said. “You'll have to ask him. But I think that's just been my goal rooming with him, trying to help him along his freshman year and really prepare him for starting next year.”

And because of Iowa’s participation in a New Year’s Six bowl game, we could ask him. Iowa had to make every player -- including true freshmen -- available during Tuesday’s Rose Bowl media day at the L.A. Downtown Hotel. In the Kirk Ferentz era, true freshmen have been off limits for outside interviews.

Daniels was engaging Tuesday and indeed gave a ton of credit to not only Blythe but the entire starting offensive line for helping him learn so quickly. The Warren, Ohio, native who was the top recruit in Iowa’s Class of 2015 has played at both guard positions and even right tackle -- after then-starter Ike Boettger injured his ankle-- during the second half Oct. 10 against Illinois.

“When Ike went down with the ankle injury … going in at tackle,” Daniels said, “that was probably the most eye-opening experience for me.”

A week later at Northwestern, Daniels became the first true freshman to start on Iowa’s offensive line since Bryan Bulaga in 2007. He’s been mostly on the bench since, after left tackle Boone Myers returned from a shoulder injury. But Brian Ferentz expects Daniels, listed as the backup left guard to Sean Welsh, to play in the Rose Bowl.

Beyond Friday? The plan is to move him to center “initially,” his position coach said. Blythe's current backup, Eric Simmons, is also out of eligibility after the Rose Bowl.

Daniels is listed at 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, but said he’s already up to 294.

“Before his career is over,” Brian Ferentz said, “he’s maybe the one guy that has a chance to play all five spots (on the offensive line). He’s already working on three of them.”