Sean Welsh looks like Marshal Yanda, but too early for on-field comparisons

Iowa offensive lineman has similar frame to NFL star but not pedigree

Iowa offensive lineman (79) Sean Welsh (79) poses during the Iowa football media day at the Kenyon practice facility in Iowa City on Saturday, August 6, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa offensive lineman (79) Sean Welsh (79) poses during the Iowa football media day at the Kenyon practice facility in Iowa City on Saturday, August 6, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Offensive lineman Sean Welsh has a future in football that could involve some pretty decent paydays.

Welsh graded as one of Iowa’s best players last year as a sophomore, head coach Kirk Ferentz said in the spring. Under Ferentz, Iowa has produced seven offensive linemen drafted in the first three rounds including Anamosa native Marshal Yanda. If you mentally pose Yanda and Welsh together, you get the same height (6-foot-3), roughly the same weight (Yanda is about 15 pounds heavier than Welsh’s 290-pound frame), red-tinted hair and varying levels of facial covering.

But that’s where the comparisons stop with offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, who played one season alongside Yanda in 2005. Yanda is a five-time Pro Bowl guard with the Baltimore Ravens and considered the undisputed best at his position by the analytics gurus at Pro Football Focus. Welsh might rank as a top talent in the Big Ten, but Yanda is beyond the junior’s comparison.

“I don’t mean he’s not a good player, and (Welsh) does look like (Yanda) physically,” Brian Ferentz said. “But I just think anytime you compare a guy who’s at, what, five Pro Bowls? I think he’s the consensus best lineman in whoever decides that. I would say if (Yanda) has a couple more good years, I think there’s a chance that you’re watching him on a Saturday night in Canton.

“I don’t think it’s fair to try to compare anybody to him. I don’t think it’s fair to Sean. With all due respect to Marshal, I don’t think it’s fair to him. He’s accomplished so much in his career and come such a long way and he’s been such a tremendous player and you look at what he’s done in that locker room in Baltimore, and what he’s done in the community and you can go down the list, he’s beyond compare in my mind. That’s how high I hold Marshal Yanda.”

More: Hawkeyes' defensive line finding its depth

Yanda hasn’t played at Iowa for 10 years, and Welsh is the player who currently puts his fist into Kinnick Stadium’s plastic grass and rubber filament. That could change this year with a spring shift from guard to center.

Welsh opened 12 games last year at left guard and twice started at right tackle. He added 10 starts as a freshman in 2014. Last year he earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors and was among the league’s better run blockers. But with the graduation of four-year starting center Austin Blythe, coupled with off-season surgery for sophomore James Daniels, Welsh was thrust into the vacant center role this spring. It wasn’t by design.

“I think that was based more on need,” Brian Ferentz said. “Initially in our mind we thought James was going to be that guy, and James was injured so Sean was the next logical choice. So it was more need-based initially. Then once he handled it real well, ‘OK, now we’re pleased with it . Let’s push forward here.’”

It was a move Welsh accepted as a team player, but it’s not his preference. He respects the decision and the reasons behind the move. Better than the other interior returnees, Welsh understands the offense and protections, of which Iowa’s center calls. He’s in tune with pre-snap reads. But snapping the ball adds another layer to the job that’s a bit foreign right now.

“With center it’s more ... for me, I’ve always loved firing off the ball and putting some weight down on my hand and just firing off the ball,” Welsh said. “At center you can’t really do that because you’ll screw up the snap. The thinking part of that, too, you’ve got to get that down.”

But early in camp, Welsh has missed time with an injury. That has forced Daniels — who missed the entire spring — back in at first-team center. Welsh took snaps with the second team at guard but didn’t participate in hard-core drills. The situation has left plenty for head coach Kirk Ferentz to ponder before Iowa’s opener against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 3.

A closer look: Iowa's offensive line

“As we move forward, we’ll keep an open mind,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s kind of like our whole team right now. I’m pretty sure (Welsh is) going to be one of the five. I’m not sure if he’ll be guard, center and vice versa with James, but I think both of those guys will be starting, and we’ll play it as we go.

“I could have made a real good argument in the spring for Sean. Now I can make one for James. You’ve got a guy who will be there for three years as opposed to two. Or you could say, ‘Hey we want the seniority of the guy who’s more experienced playing there.’ It’s kind of like you’re weighing a couple of things back and forth. The good news is both of them are pretty capable of it. That’s a good thing.”

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