Sort of like that old saying, there’s only three things that we can be certain of in life: Death, Taxes, and the University of Iowa churning out NFL-caliber offensive linemen. Whether it has been former Outland Trophy winners Robert Gallery and Brandon Scherff, veteran Green Bay Packer Bryan Bulaga, or even a former third-round pick in Marshal Yanda (who some could argue is the best at his position), the consistent success of former Hawkeye linemen is undeniable. Out of the 23 former Iowa players listed on 2017 opening day rosters, nine of those players are on the offensive line. Unsurprisingly, Iowa boasts two of the top interior offensive lineman in the 2018 class in offensive guard Sean Welsh and this report’s star attraction, center James Daniels.

The thing about Daniels is that he fits the mold of any other Iowa offensive linemen that has come before him, yet he stands apart at the same time. He is grounded in fundamentals, comes to work with a lunch pail mentality, and gives 110% effort on each rep. What makes James Daniels stand out from the rest? Well, for starters, he was an early declaration for the NFL Draft which is a rare occasion for a lineman under Kirk Ferentz.

Usually, offensive linemen choose to hone their skills for as long as they can while at Iowa. This allows them to be as pro-ready as possible. Just take a look at recent Redskins 2015 first round selection Brandon Scherff. The guy was going to be a potential first round pick following his junior season and could have chased that money. Instead, he went back to school, won the Outland Trophy, was selected with the fifth overall pick, and was just recently selected to his second Pro Bowl. So, you could say that extra year helps.

The case with James is that he is more pro-ready at this very moment than most are after all four or five years at Iowa, especially when it comes to the recent interior players. Former centers Austin Blythe and James Ferentz were both three-plus year starters for the Hawkeyes, but both failed to garner much attention from scouts, winding up as a seventh-round selection and a UDFA, respectively.

Just Built Different

According to the Iowa roster, Daniels stands at 6’4 and 295 pounds with two of the longest arms at the position. I like to imagine him as a “compressed” tackle playing the center position. Ferentz and Blythe before him both stood at 6’2. Ferentz tipped the scale at 285 pounds while Blythe was a tad heavier at 291. For what it’s worth, all three of their weights would bring me pause as an NFL scout. If you looked at Ferentz or Blythe, however, you would argue that both had already maxed out their frames.

They were both thick, boxy, former wrestlers. Daniels, on the other hand, could stand to pack on another 10 or 15 pounds of functional mass. He has already shown the ability to handle bigger interior defenders at a sub-300 body weight, so any added bulk would only help solidify that aspect of his game. With some of the massive bodies that now occupy the middle of most NFL defensive lines, having that room for growth will be huge.

The Iowa Way

The University of Iowa may not churn out first round offensive line talent in the way that Alabama or Ohio State does, but you can bet your sweet ass they will run circles around the rest of the prospects in terms of fundamentals and overall effort. The Hawkeyes utilize a zone-heavy run scheme and you can rest easy knowing that these guys have drilled their zone tracks into oblivion. Take a look at this picture perfect rep between James Daniels and his left guard #69 Keegan “Nice” Render.

When offensive linemen aren’t comfortable with their ability or their preparation, zone run fundamentals can take a quick dive. Lineman are taught to get hip-to-hip on double-teams and get forward movement on the down linemen and aim to push him into the linebacker’s lap. It is stressed that the double-team CANNOT be split, nor should one of the linemen get off until they are at the LB. Unprepared linemen will often jump the gun out of fear of missing the block on the LB and this can cause both blocks to fail, and thus the whole play fails.

This is something you will almost never see with Daniels or his former teammate/fellow draft prospect OG Sean Welsh.

Here is another inside zone run that RB Akrum Wadley takes for a chunk gain:

I like this rep because it’s a phenomenal example of how fast some of these double-teams are executed and how quickly the decision has to be made about jumping off to that second level defender. In this play, Daniels and Render double-team the shade over Daniel’s left shoulder. Their aiming point is the lap of the backside linebacker. However, the linebacker chooses his gap and quickly shoots to Render’s side of the block within a second of the snap. Render does a phenomenal job of throwing his body in the LB to neutralize his progress, but this left Daniels off-kilter with the DT. Unsurprisingly, Daniels recovers, run his feet, and gets him on the ground, leaving a gaping hole for his running back to prance through.

Athough Hawkeye linemen are known for being well-versed in the run game, you won’t find much better in pass protection within this interior OL class than Daniels.

While some of the top prospects will get by on flash plays, or overwhelming physical size/strength, Daniels is as consistent as they come on a play-to-play basis. Juts take a look at this play against Ohio State:

One of my BIGGEST pet peeves in this class of OL is that the majority of prospects seem to be allergic to keeping their hands inside in pass protection, or at least fighting to reset them if they land outside of the breastplate after their initial strike. It makes life a lot easier when the battle for inside leverage is won. Take a look at #67 trying to do anything once Daniels has his hands on him. Good luck, Kid.

Having Some Hawk Eyes

One of the more impressive aspects of Daniels’ game is his mental processing ability. This is a trait that’s directly correlated to a player’s experience and the level of preparation they put into their craft. Being able to register and act upon the sensory feedback from the action in front of your eyes at lightning speed is a large part of being a football player.

When it comes to those in the trenches, the difficulty of this processing rises exponentially as massive bodies are being flung into you from all directions. Being able to independently use your mind and your limbs gives offensive linemen an advantage when they can focus on one thing while trusting their muscle memory to perform their assignments. In the play below, watch how fast Daniel’s processes the scene in from of him:

In a little over a second, he goes through a short checklist before deducing the action isn’t happening on the right side of the line. He turns towards his left guard just in time to catch the 3-tech from penetrating the A-gap. The mental processing is increasingly important for someone playing the center position because, depending on the offense, the center may be the one making all of the protections checks and calls for each play. Any offense would be in safe hands with Daniels in the middle of it all.

A Little Something Extra

In a recent episode of the First Draft Podcast, Mel Kiper Jr. talked a little bit about James Daniels and the potential he has for going in the first round. He specifically mentioned that offensive linemen from Iowa usually come out of college ahead of the game in terms of pro-readiness. After all, they come from a program led by Kirk Ferentz, a man who got to where he is due to his pedigree in offensive line development. You are getting that pro-ready, corn-fed Iowa talent in Daniels, but with a little extra athleticism and physical capability.

He’s longer, quicker, and more flexible than previous pivots for the Hawkeyes (as I mentioned at the start of the article). Lateral agility and “basketball feet” have never been mentioned in the same breath as an Iowa OL, but Daniels is going to break that mold.

Last but not least, Daniels blossomed in his final year at Iowa, putting together his rock-steady fundamentals with a finishing mentality, which was the final cherry on top of his game that he needed to transcend from “just a guy” to one of the best in the class.

When it’s all said and done, James Daniels has what it takes to start for an NFL team from day one. Doesn’t matter if it’s a zone-based scheme or a power run game, Daniels will be the guy in the middle of it all for years to come.

(Here are some of my favorite clips to hopefully leave you guys wanting more.)

About The Author Michael Peterson

Michael Peterson is an irrational Chargers fan from the heart of the Midwest who is numb to laughter he often receives for admitting that. He spent a year playing tight end and punter at FCS Drake University, before finishing out at the University of Iowa this past December. After hanging up the cleats, Michael has used fantasy football and writing as a means to focus his undying love of the sport.