IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz doesn’t have an answer yet about who will fill the holes on the Iowa football team’s offensive line created by the graduation of Sean Welsh and James Daniels’ decision to enter the NFL draft.
What the Iowa football coach does have is time.
"That’s what the next four, five months, the next six, seven months are about, trying to figure out who will be ready when September rolls around," Ferentz said Wednesday.
The Hawkeyes have options. As they work to find a replacement for Welsh, a 49-game starter over the past four seasons at guard and tackle, and Daniels, a three-year starting center, the objective will remain unchanged.
"The hard thing about college football, when you graduate guys, whether it be linebackers or guys like Sean, that’s all part of the process," Ferentz said. "But with that, it creates opportunities. That’s the neat thing about it, to see who is going to rise up and who is going to make that step forward."
The Hawkeyes do return three starters, tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs and Keegan Render, a guard who started at center when Daniels missed the 2017 opener against Wyoming because of injury.
Ferentz said Render will get a look at center this spring, and he expects the two players who backed up at the position, Cole Banwart and Spencer Williams, to get a look as well.
All will compete for a chance to fill a significant role on the offensive line.
Ferentz had high praise for Daniels’ consistency, saying the center who won’t celebrate his 21st birthday until Sept. 13 is the most talented NFL center prospect he has ever coached, adding that includes the six seasons he spent coaching offensive linemen in the NFL.
"He’s got some skills that are just really unusual, and he’s a really intelligent guy," Ferentz said. "… James is one hell of a developmental prospect as a center. In my mind, he could go and play guard for anybody next year, for just about anybody in the league. He’s that kind of player."
In searching for a replacement, Ferentz said coaches will look for many of the same the traits Daniels brought to the field.
Those traits extend beyond the technical aspects of playing center.
He used Banwart, a redshirt freshman from Algona, Iowa, as an example.
An injury left Banwart on crutches as Iowa prepared for the Pinstripe Bowl, but Ferentz said during the fall he demonstrated traits coaches will be looking for as they watch potential lineup replacements work this spring.
"Not only as a center, but just for a guy who is going to play out there," Ferentz said. "Can he do it or not? We’ll find out this spring, but I think he’s demonstrated he’s coachable. He’s a really dedicated guy and is serious about what he does. Great work ethic. I think he’s got an opportunity."
Those opportunities will extend elsewhere on the line, where redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger of Bettendorf has caught the attention of Iowa coaches.
Kallenberger lined up as a second-team offensive tackle during pregame warm-ups at the Pinstripe Bowl, and while there was no chance he would play in that game in order to preserve the redshirt year, Kallenberger has positioned himself to compete for playing time for the 2018 season.
"He worked a lot with the twos this year and was on scout team as well," Ferentz said. "We had him go back and forth so he wasn’t standing around, watching. He was doing things."
Not uncommon for a player still less than a year out of high school, Kallenberger will continue to work on gaining strength and size, but Ferentz said the coaches have been impressed with his work so far.
"He’s got the traits we’re looking for, too," he said. "He’s a really competitive guy, tough minded, and he doesn’t back down from anything. He’s got a lot of work to do, but we really like him.’’
Ferentz said he could see Kallenberger playing tackle at some point "down the road," expecting him to join Jackson, Wirfs and Levi Paulsen in competition for front-five spots this spring.