Daniels, who enters this week's NFL Draft as one of the top-rated interior offensive linemen, discusses the Hawkeyes' coaching after pro day.
The Iowa Hawkeyes have a long, storied tradition of churning out quality offensive line prospects, and James Daniels is the latest in that impressive lineage.
A versatile blocker who anchored the Hawkeyes’ dominant unit over the past few years, Daniels is a complete prospect knocking on the door of the first round this month.
Daniels spoke exclusively with Draft Wire in March about blowing out Ohio State, the importance of offensive line play, and why you should be scared to face him in FIFA.
JM: You had a really strong season in 2017. Did you do anything differently over the off-season?
JD: To be honest, no. Going into the 2017 season, I was just focusing on becoming a better leader. In both 2015 and 2016, I felt like I wasn’t a very good leader. Over this past off-season, I was just focused on becoming more respected by my teammates. I just wanted to be a better leader overall. I think I wound up doing that, and that’s honestly why my play elevated in 2017.
JM: It’s so important to be a leader when playing the center position.
JD: It’s very important. On most plays, you’re literally telling everybody what to do. If you’re not a leader, how are they gonna listen to you? How are they gonna respect your calls?
JM: At what point did you realize that you could play at the NFL level?
JD: I would say that probably happened for me during my freshmen year. Throughout the season, when we would go back and watch tape, and we’d see a player who was named to the All-Big Ten, I would think to myself, “I’m not far off from being that player.” I started to realize I could play in the NFL when I would watch tape and realize that the best players were not that much better than I was. I was just trying to get to their level.
JM: You’re an impressive athlete. How do develop and maintain that athleticism being a bigger guy?
JD: I don’t know (laughs). All throughout middle school and even high school, I was a bigger kid, of course, but I was always athletic. When I got to Iowa, [strength and conditioning] coach [Chris] Doyle always emphasized that for me. They made me become the player that I am today; they made me bigger and they helped me get stronger and faster. I don’t know, man. It just worked out. I do believe you pretty much have to be born a good athlete, though.
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Former Iowa center James Daniels on a fateful conversation with Kirk Ferentz Mark Emmert/Hawk Central
JM: You also have plenty of power to go along with that athleticism. Because your skill set is so versatile, I’m curious if you have a favorite play call?
JD: My favorite play call is an outside zone play. Whenever there’s a two-eye or a shade, or the nose tackle is lined up where the play is designed to go, that’s pretty much a one-on-one block in our offense. I feel like that’s probably my best block and that’s my favorite play.
JM: You have to be pretty athletic to block for a guy like Akrum Wadley. He can stop on a dime.
JD: Yeah, he is (laughs). It wasn’t that hard to block for him though. Even when the play wasn’t well-blocked, he can still make a couple of people miss. Some of his best runs from this season were runs that weren’t even blocked at all. He just does some amazing stuff.
JM: Playing the center position means you do a lot of the dirty work. It doesn’t often come with a lot of praise. What’s your favorite part about playing the position?
JD: I would say that we’re the most important unit on the entire offense. Even the defensive line, I’d say they’re the most important unit on the defense. If we don’t block or if we can’t protect, it doesn’t matter who our quarterback or wide receivers are. We won’t be able to win games if that’s the case. As an offensive line, we know that we have to block every play as best as we can for us to have a chance to win. You can have the best skill players in the world, but if you don’t have a good offensive line that can give a quarterback time or give the running back a little hole, it doesn’t matter.
JM: Do you think there’s a scheme in particular that best suits your skill set?
JD: We ran a zone-based scheme at Iowa. Of course we ran some power and man plays, but I’m ready to play in any type of scheme. It really doesn’t matter.
JM: Do you think some teams may think about moving you to guard?
JD: If I was a scout, I would look at myself with the potential to play the guard position. In my true freshmen year, I only played guard. I didn’t even play center that year outside of some practice reps. I played all of my in-game snaps at guard that year.
Former Hawkeye center James Daniels on the importance of being able to think on the fly Mark Emmert/Hawk Central
JM: What are your responsibilities from the moment you snap the ball to getting into your stance?
JD: At Iowa, we huddled first, of course. I would set the huddle about four or five yards from the line of scrimmage. After we break the huddle, I get to the line and I have to ID the front. We look at the defensive tackles and the linebackers. Depending on the play, that’s how we ID the front. I find the MIKE and point him out by yelling out his number. After I make the IDs, I set the blocking combination. That pretty much involves any linemen on the line of scrimmage, tight ends included.
After I make the ID and yell out the blocking combination, I make sure the ball is snapped. Of course, I listen to the cadence but if ball isn’t snapped correctly, it ends the play before it even starts. A fumbled snap ruins everything. It’s kind of hard because I’ve done it so many times, I sometimes don’t even think about it anymore, but you really have to focus on getting the snap right. Even if it’s a little too far to the left or right, it can throw off the timing of the entire play. You just have to focus on the snap and after that, you just block your assignment.
JM: Playing on the interior, you encounter quite a bit of power coming from the bull rush. How do you stop it?
JD: You have to use your hands first. It doesn’t matter, you can play against a speed guy who isn’t strong at all, but if you don’t have your hands inside and on his chest, anybody can walk you backwards. To stop the bull rush, it’s literally all technique. You just have to get your hands on him fast and first. If you do that, you’ll be fine.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz says the 20-year-old is one of the best center prospects he’s ever coached.
JM: Who do you think is the best defensive linemen you’ve ever faced?
JD: In my freshmen year, Nebraska had this guy named Maliek Collins [current Dallas Cowboy]. He was probably the best guy I’ve ever faced. Dre’Mont Jones from Ohio State was pretty tough. He was really good. Minnesota’s nose tackle, Steven Richardson; he was short, but he went really hard every play. Those guys stick out in my mind.
JM: Speaking of Ohio State, how did it feel to knock them off in such dominating fashion?
JD: It was nice to beat Ohio State like that. We knew how good of a team they were. We knew that if we made any mistakes, we would get beat. Playing against Ohio State and their defensive line as a unit, we really had to focus on our technique on every play. We knew as an offensive line that if we had even one flaw in our technique, they would expose it. To be able to play against teams like that, it really helps us focus on our technique. You’re focused on competing and your fundamentals. That’s how it happened.
JM: Iowa has quite the reputation of developing offensive line talent for the next level. What does the Iowa brand mean to you as you transition to playing on Sundays?
JD: It’s really important. Before I came to Iowa, I looked at the players they had in the NFL. They have so many offensive linemen in the NFL. I know that when future recruits come to Iowa, they’re gonna look at me and how I played in the NFL, so I just wanna set a good example for those future recruiting classes. I just wanna keep up the tradition.
JM: I imagine Iowa’s proven track record of developing offensive line talent played a big role in your decision. You had offers from Alabama, Ohio State and Auburn, just to name a few.
JD: I’ve always watched football. I wouldn’t see an Iowa game every weekend, but when I did have a chance to watch Iowa football, I always noticed the offensive line dominating. My brother played at Iowa, as well. When he was a true freshmen, they played a game against Ohio State in Columbus. I just remember Iowa’s offensive line literally dominating that entire game. Ohio State won a high-scoring game, but when I saw that game, I realized how serious offensive line play was at Iowa. When they started recruiting me, I started learning more about how they develop players through the program and how many players they had in the NFL. After going through the process, that’s why I chose to come to Iowa.
Former Iowa center James Daniels discusses his pro day, value of being a Hawkeye entering the NFL Draft. Chad Leistikow
JM: What’s the best lesson any Iowa coach ever taught you?
JD: Your technique is everything. If you don’t have good technique, you will get beat a lot. It’s all about technique and fundamentals. Those are the most important things.
JM: How do you like to spend your time outside of football?
JD: I’m a soccer fan, so I watch a lot of soccer. I also play FIFA. I like to play video games. That’s pretty much it.
JM: You don’t wanna see me on FIFA.
JD: Oh, is that right? (laughs).
JM: I’m a problem.
JD: I guarantee I can beat you (laughs).
JM: Those are fighting words! Who do you use?
JD: Real Madrid.
JM: I’m Portuguese, so that’s gonna be an issue for me.
JD: Cristiano Ronaldo! He’s a great player.
JM: We’re gonna exchange gamertags after this. When a team drafts James Daniels, what kind of man are they getting?
JD: You’re drafting a guy that’s gonna come in and play his role to the best of his ability, and help the team win as many football games as possible.