Hawkeye center Daniels is a year wiser and ready to show it

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa center James Daniels is not big on sentiment.

Ask the junior about being named to the preseason “watch list” for the Rimington Trophy that goes to the best player at his position, and he replies: “I searched it up. I think they had, like, 60 people on the list. So I guess they chose every returning starter.”

OK, so how is he adjusting to life without older brother LeShun, a tailback who graduated this spring?

“I’m actually glad that he’s gone. It gives me more space. He’s off my back. I like that.”

Last season, Iowa center James Daniels (right) was clearing holes for older brother LeShun. This year, the junior is preparing to have an even bigger impact for the Hawkeyes.

Daniels smiled through both answers, having a little fun with reporters last week, but his essential message was this:

“I’m feeling more comfortable and confident.”

And that’s good news for the Hawkeyes. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Ohio native will be right in the middle of Iowa’s offense again this season, a year wiser and ready to follow in the footsteps of his former mentor, Austin Blythe.

Daniels was good last year, showing the speed and instincts that made him a four-star recruit out of high school. He expects much more of himself this fall.

“Early on last year, I only really looked at the linebackers and the D-line. I never looked at the entire defense,” he said. “But now I’m starting to look at the safeties and just how everything on the defense goes together. When you start playing more, you start realizing that teams do the same things. It’s been nice to see a certain look and know what’s going to come.”

Daniels said he’s concentrating on his hand placement and his pad level during summer workouts. Last year, when Iowa surrendered 30 sacks, he noticed that even when his body was in the right position during pass protection, sometimes his hands were too high or his elbows were too far out. The only way to correct that is to concentrate on getting it right every time until it becomes a habit.

And so Daniels is.

“We’ve been known for running the ball. We’re not known for passing the ball,” Daniels said. “There’s going to be some games where we might be down that we need to throw the ball. That means we need to pass-protect.”

And that means they need to handle blitzes better. As a center, Daniels is instrumental in recognizing those and calling out assignments to his teammates. Studying film helps. So does being able to see the entire field now instead of only what’s right in front of him.

“The way defensive coordinators work now, if you get beat by a blitz in Week 1, the defensive coordinator from Week 4 is going to use that same blitz against you,” Daniels said. “You can’t get beat by the same blitz twice.”

Daniels is also adjusting to a new position coach in Tim Polasek, the former offensive coordinator at North Dakota State. It was not a quiet process.

“When I first met him, he was constantly screaming. He was so passionate. I was, like, ‘This guy’s crazy,’” Daniels said of Polasek. “But I really enjoy being around him.”

In that sense, Polasek is replacing LeShun Daniels Jr. as the guy constantly on Daniels’ back. Polasek has been pushing Daniels to be a more vocal leader. That process will start at August's camp, where Daniels will room with redshirt freshman Spencer Williams of Cedar Falls. That was Daniels’ request. He’s paying it forward.

“Me being a starter or an older player, I just wanted to take a younger player and do what Blythe did with me — teach him everything I know,” said Daniels of a role he’s starting to enjoy.

“When I tell (young players) to do something, they really listen. They always listen. They might not do it the first time, but they end up doing it. It makes me happy when they do something right that I helped them.”