IOWA CITY, Iowa — Injuries forced the Iowa coaching staff to juggle three of its five offensive line positions Saturday, including one that reminded everyone of a sour situation from 2016.
When the Hawkeyes lost to North Dakota State nearly a year ago, starting center James Daniels and guard Sean Welsh were withheld because of injuries. The unit looked out of rhythm that day, and the statistics proved it. The Hawkeyes rushed for 34 yards, including minus-14 in the fourth quarter.
This week against Wyoming, Daniels again was dinged up and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz elected not to play him. Starting left tackle Boone Myers was limited and available for rotational duty only. That left Ferentz with some sleepless situations and memories of last year’s issues against the Bison.
“My anxiousness, I think of all the what ifs and all the things that can go wrong, so stay away from me as the game gets closer, as that’s the case,” Ferentz said. “Believe me, I thought about our center out, those kinds of things. Things you never take for granted, but you’d like to think a center exchange is a lot of magic in college, at least once you start playing. Those are things you have to worry about.”
But Ferentz and his staff learned a few lessons in the North Dakota State loss and applied them in a 24-3 season-opening win against Wyoming at Kinnick Stadium. Throughout fall camp, offensive line coach Tim Polasek — who, ironically, was North Dakota State’s offensive coordinator last year — mixed and matched combinations up front. None of Iowa’s offensive linemen played in every game last year, so the staff made sure their replacements were better groomed in case of injuries this year.
“We kind of prepared for that all camp,” said Myers, who worked a few series at left guard on Saturday. “We’ve been throwing in a lot of different guys in camp, different rotations, just getting guys reps and getting guys used to being in there. I think we were prepared this game.”
Daniels, a junior, is the toughest replacement. Not only does he handle the calls and snaps the ball, but Daniels is athletically superior to every other player inside the tackle box. While Daniels’ replacement might not match his skill set, Iowa could not afford the struggles that plagued the team last year against North Dakota State.
So during camp starting guards Keegan Render and Sean Welsh each took snaps at center. Welsh prefers to play guard, but he worked at center exclusively throughout the 2016 offseason. This August, Render solidified the center role behind Daniels and played the position during Iowa’s major scrimmage on Aug. 19.
“You never want to wish anything, but we were saying if James goes down you’re going to have to step in,” Render said. “Obviously I was prepared mentally and coming into it, I’d gotten some center reps. So I knew going in it was the same as guard, it was one set over and you’ve got to worry about snapping the ball. That was mostly my biggest mindset, was making sure the snaps were good and making sure you’ve got your target.”
There were no issues with the snap, which was Render’s first responsibility. But his move to center vacated left guard and Myers’ status opened up left tackle. Junior Ross Reynolds slid in at left guard and rotated with Myers while redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson started at left tackle. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it rarely is for Iowa’s offense early in the season.
“[I] can’t say enough about Keegan jumping in there, his first game at center,” Ferentz said. “That’s not easy. And no exchange problems, which believe me, I was worried about that. Boone’s been fighting through injury issues during camp, and we were just hoping he could play and play representative. Looks like he did that. When he’s in there, he gives us a lot.”
Daniels officially was ruled out on Friday, and Jackson practiced as the starter at left tackle for more than a week. Ferentz expects Daniels to play next week at Iowa State, while Myers’ starting status is undetermined. Either way, the Hawkeyes are more prepared for injuries up front this year than they were last year against North Dakota State.
“There’s always going to be guys dinged up,” Myers said. “[You’re] just trying to play through it. It’s been a pretty good camp other than that. We’ve got a lot of work in, a lot of guys got a lot of looks at different positions. I think we were ready to go.”
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