THE STAR: I think you'll be receiving your first full glimpse of a future all-american center this year in James Daniels. The two-deep for the opener may list him as the right guard and Sean Welsh the center but I feel as though that won't be how they line up on the first snap. I fully expect James Daniels to be the lineman that C.J. Beathard takes the ball from throughout the season. It's his most natural spot and you won't find many other centers in the country as athletic as he is and he's only a sophomore. He's also got the length to play some tackle, as he did a season ago, which makes him very uncommon on the interior and that much more effective. He's a stud.
THE FUTURE: The future looks a lot like the present, really. Cole Croston will be the only lineman that departs at the end of the year. At that point, Iowa will insert another body to man the left tackle position or slide a current starter into the role. What is the most likely? Keegan Render is the clear sixth man in the offensive line rotation this season giving him the upper hand to step into the starter group a year from now. He's an interior player meaning that Boone Myers would jump back out to tackle. With Boettger taking all his snaps from the right side so far, Myers is the favorite to be the left tackle a year from now while Keegan Render nestles in at right guard.
What happens if they just like Myers too much inside and don't feel comfortable with him on the outside? Render is likely a back-up on the interior once again and the tackle likely becomes Brett Waechter. Dalton Ferguson is another possibility but I don't think they see him as a left tackle type and for one reason or another he's not on the two-deep for the opener. It is unclear if it is injury related or him being passed up. Waechter is the clear favorite at tackle today. He may not be the clear favorite in the second unit, when Ross Reynolds, Lucas LeGrand, and Keegan Render are all taken into account, but he's the only one capable of competing at the left tackle spot.
It will come down to how they feel about Boone Myers at left tackle.
Beyond 2017, things get intriguing. Sean Welsh, Ike Boettger, and Boone Myers all move on. The players that seem primed to be in the 2018 lineup at offensive line are Brett Waechter, James Daniels, Levi Paulsen, Ross Reynolds, and Keegan Render. That's a lot of interior guys so some of that will depend on Paulsen's ability to play right tackle. But that's a long ways from now and anything can happen and some guys could develop rapidly and catch up.
THE OUTLOOK: It will be a great run blocking team as it always is. That's their bread and butter and that's the first thing they know as soon as they leave their first practice at Iowa. On that, I have no concerns for this group. Blythe and Walsh will be missed, especially in the locker room, but also on the field. They were strong and proven guys that knew exactly what to do and how to do it on nearly every snap. There might be some growing pains with this group early, but with this five you get a much more athletic group as a whole. The injuries that have crept up are a little bit of a concern but all of it will be wiped away if Sean Welsh heads out there for the first snap of the opener and goes back to playing at the level he did a year ago.
Pass blocking is the question mark for this unit, and mostly just because it was only about average a season ago. They were well below average against Wisconsin and Stanford, and against Michigan State. The edge rushers against those three were more stout and it was the first year in the lineup for Croston, Myers, Boettger, and Daniels and they were out of position in some cases due to injuries. They need to take a step or two up in this department, and I think they will. But I think there will be growing pains in the first month or so.
FINAL THOUGHTS: This team will run the ball fine. How they pass the ball, and how consistently they can, will determine their success. Their defense has a question mark here or there but they're good enough that they will keep themselves in every game during the regular season. They're not incompetent enough to get their doors blown off and Christian McCaffrey isn't in the Big Ten and he doesn't play for Miami (Ohio), Iowa State, or North Dakota State. The defense has a pass rush to figure out but everywhere else they're well above average.
It comes down to how well can Iowa score the ball and throwing the ball is the one concern. And they'll need something there to keep defenses honest and off their running game. They can't be one dimensional or they won't score. They have to pass and be able to move the ball through the air. Can they block well enough and are the receivers ready to perform at the level they need? The first month should help them figure it all out while still being able to win games. Is Iowa playing in a New Year's Six Bowl this year? Are they taking on the Big Ten East winner in Indianapolis? What they can do through the air should determine that and the offensive line plays a role. They have to keep Beathard upright so he can deliver. They didn't always do that a year ago.