'A little surreal': One of Iowa's most respected leaders, Keegan Render on final leg of Hawkeye journey

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Athletes tend to stay away from reflection and reminiscing during the in-season grind, but Keegan Render couldn’t help himself.

He, Sam Brincks and Landan Paulsen were hosting a recruit a few weeks ago, dialing up their best pitch on the Iowa football way. Stories and memories came flooding back. Some had gotten lost in the five-year shuffle of Render’s Hawkeye grind.

Iowa senior center Keegan Render of Indianola gets a hug from his mom, Karen, after the team arrived at the stadium prior to kickoff against Northern Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

“We were just talking about our experiences here,” Render said. “There were a lot of things that came out — you just start talking about it — and realize you’ve had a lot of experiences. It just seems like it’s gone by really fast. You kind of just take a step back and realize all the things that’ve happened and how they shaped you as a player. Even off the field, experiences you’ve had with teammates.

“It just makes you reflect. You go through the process, and you’re grinding so much that you’re like, ‘Man, this kind of sucks at times.’ But now you get (to the end), and there are only so many more practices. I don’t know, it just comes at you kind of fast. It’s just a little surreal.”

Two games remain in Render’s collegiate tenure, beginning with Friday’s 11 a.m. showdown against Nebraska. As one of Iowa’s 14 seniors, these will be the center’s final snaps in Kinnick Stadium.

There’s no flashy storyline here, no flamboyant personality — just steady progression from a redshirt season to one of Iowa’s most respected leaders. Render’s been named a captain nine of 12 times this year and has helped mold together an offensive line that was littered with youth and inexperience to start the season.

That’s where Render’s final chapter begins. Tasked with replacing second-round NFL draft pick James Daniels at center, Iowa’s search began once the Hawkeyes reconvened after last year’s Pinstripe Bowl.

There wasn’t a clear-cut fit. Iowa turned to experience.

Render spent the 2017 season mostly rotating between the guard positions while making one start at center against Wyoming. Becoming the man in the middle was mostly a foreign excursion, but one Render was ready to embrace from the jump.

“That's the biggest change I've seen in him from last year to this year is just his eagerness to accept that opportunity,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, “and he's really done a great job. He is kind of the hub of things with our offensive line.”     

It’s a balancing act between serenity and vigilance at center. It’s the only position besides quarterback that touches the ball on every play, so remaining relaxed amid chaos is certainly paramount. But so is observing the minute details of the defense in front.       

A pre-snap snippet goes like this.

“At first, I’m looking at the two defensive tackles and then the ID linebacker — and (quarterback) Nate (Stanley) will tell us where we’re going,” Render explained. “So based on them, it’ll start where our count starts — we’re a counting system here — so we have basically three or four different fronts we’ll call out.

“So based on those three guys’ alignments, we make the front call and go from there. It’s a lot of terminology, but it’s mostly just getting where those three guys are initially. And then from there, we just go. There are different variations from it. It takes a lot, but as long as everybody is on the same page, we’ve done a pretty good job.”     

Confused? No worries. Render’s description further illustrates how pivotal it was for him to fully grasp the position at an accelerated rate. With two sophomore tackles —albeit talented ones in Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs — on the starting line as well as shuffling at right guard, Render’s stability in the middle was a necessity.

“Our chemistry really progressed fast,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. “He got into that role and really embraced and ran with it. Moving on from the spring, it just continued to progress every day — and nobody’s looked back.”

Until now. Time is running low for Render and the rest of Iowa’s seniors — something they obviously knew would happen but didn’t want to think about until the final moments.

Render has watched four Senior Days unfold and the sentiments attached with them. Come Friday, he’ll roll with the emotions and let them flow however they may.

“It’s always, 'Hey, I’ll be there one day' and now, it’s happening,’” Render said. “It’ll be different, but awesome to run out there one last time. I’ll probably let the emotions go, but I’ll try to hide some of them. Just soak up everything.”      

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.