IOWA CITY, Ia. — If Iowa’s 2016 offensive line is going to be one of the best in the Big Ten Conference again, as ESPN recently predicted, Sean Welsh will have been a 288-pound reason.
The junior-to-be might be the most vital lineman in the eventual five-man puzzle for the defending Big Ten West football champions. That’s because he brings high blocking grades and position flexibility, not to mention quite the endorsement from his head coach.
“We think he's a pretty good player,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I hate to throw this out, because I don't want to start this train going, but Marshal (Yanda) comes to mind.”
The next Yanda? When an offensive line guru like Ferentz makes a comparison to a five-time Pro Bowler, it’s worth taking notice.
“I'm bringing it up because whatever we asked Marshal to do when he was here, he did it pretty well,” Ferentz said. “He wasn't necessarily flashy or an eye-catching guy. Testing-wise, all that kind of stuff, height, width, all those types of things. He really blocked guys well, no matter where we put him.”
Yanda is arguably the most dominant guard in the NFL. He recently signed a four-year, $37.4 million contract extension with the Baltimore Ravens that will pay him a guaranteed $6.2 million in 2016. In his two-year Hawkeye career, Yanda played guard (in 2005) and tackle (in 2006).
Welsh played both positions last year, including a start at right tackle in the Rose Bowl. This spring, he’s adding the trifecta as Iowa’s No. 1 center. The only position he hasn’t played as a Hawkeye is left tackle, and he probably won’t as the team’s smallest starting lineman (6-3, 288).
He’s only experienced a few high school all-star games at center, but he’s embracing the request of his offensive line coach. Brian Ferentz in a one-on-one meeting recently told Welsh to start snapping the football with projected starting center James Daniels, an impressive 18-year-old sophomore (6-4, 295), out for the spring following surgery.
“I love it. It’s great so far. It’s going well,” Welsh said earlier this week. “It’s going to be an adjustment, and it has been. Working on it. Just getting used to not having any weight on my hand. You have to snap the ball. You have to ID the defense. There’s a couple things you have to do. But all in all, it’s really similar to the two other positions.”
Center is an important position at line-oriented Iowa, so it’s no wonder its most experienced lineman (23 starts) is getting a spring shot there. For years, center was mostly manned by Austin Blythe — a Rimington Award finalist as the nation’s top center who started the last 45 games of his career.
As you might expect, Welsh’s first few spring practices in a new role were choppy.
“It’s different. Blythe, I never had to worry about a bad snap or anything like that,” starting quarterback C.J. Beathard said Wednesday. “But Sean is improving each day. We’re on Practice 4 (of 15 this spring) and we only had one ball down on center-quarterback exchange, which is improvement from the first day.”
Iowa’s goal every year on the offensive line is to put its best five blockers on the field. That’s why last year’s left tackle, Boone Myers (6-5, 305), has moved inside to left guard — to make room for Cole Croston (6-5, 307) and Ike Boettger (6-6, 307) to play their more natural positions at tackle.
With Daniels missing key spring work, it makes sense to give Welsh a shot in the middle. Walk-on senior Steve Ferentz is the second-team center.
“By no means do you have to be a rocket scientist,” Welsh said. “But you just have to have a good understanding of the big picture, kind of how the defense works.”
If Welsh excels there, the option exists for Daniels to get another year at guard (where he started twice last year, including in the Rose Bowl). If Daniels makes up lost time quickly, Welsh can go back to right guard. There’s that desired flexibility.
And it’s probably one reason ESPN.com ranked Iowa’s 2016 line as tied for second-best in the Big Ten behind Michigan, despite losing Blythe and first-team all-Big Ten guard Jordan Walsh to graduation.
Without Welsh, who Kirk Ferentz said graded on film as well as any player at any position in 2015, the Hawkeye line would be in a less-comforting situation.
“He's not 6-6 and 330 pounds or any of that stuff, but he's just a really good football player, really productive on the field,” the 18th-year head coach said. “We make a living off players like that, really that type of guy. He's got an unbelievable attitude.”
IOWA’S ALL-BIG TEN OFFENSIVE LINEMEN UNDER KIRK FERENTZ
(First or second team only; *–AP first-team All-American; **–AP second-team All-American)
2015 – Jordan Walsh (first), Austin Blythe (second)
2014 – *Brandon Scherff (first), Blythe (second)
2013 – Scherff (first), Brett Van Sloten (second)
2012 – James Ferentz (second)
2011 – Riley Reiff (first), Adam Gettis (second)
2010 – Reiff (second), Julian Vandervelde (second)
2009 – **Bryan Bulaga (first), Dace Richardson (first), Kyle Calloway (second), Rafael Eubanks (second)
2008 – Seth Olsen (first), Rob Bruggeman (second), Bulaga (second), Calloway (second)
2007 – None
2006 – Mike Jones (first), Marshal Yanda (second)
2005 – None
2004 – None
2003 – *Robert Gallery (first)
2002 – Gallery (first), *Eric Steinbach (first), David Porter (second)
2001 – Steinbach (first), Porter (second)
2000 – None
1999 – None