Iowa Football

Keegan Render plays center and the hub for Iowa

The senior has an eye on the big picture and wants to keep everyone on the path

Iowa center Keegan Render (69) blocks for running back Mekhi Sargent against Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind., on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa center Keegan Render (69) blocks for running back Mekhi Sargent against Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind., on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Keegan Render wasn’t digging for gold when he raised his hand late last year and thought center would be a cool thing to try.

You can see why it might be that way. The Iowa center spent his junior season rotating at a guard position. James Daniels was too good. Offensive linemen in the room with him knew he probably would leave early for the NFL.

Daniels recently made his first career start for the Chicago Bears.

 

Render was walking into his senior year. Did he want to rotate at guard again? Did he want his very own position?

You can see that logic. It wasn’t that.

Render, a senior from Indianola, thought it’d be the best thing for the offensive line. He talked to O-line coach Tim Polasek. He agreed.

“I said I’m willing to move to center,” Render said. “I think it’d be the best choice for us this year just to have some stability inside. I felt like it was the most necessary thing to do for us to become a good O-line this year, a chance to have some continuity.”

Here’s how that’s manifested for the No. 21 Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten), who’d really like to be able to lean on the running game Saturday in wintry conditions at Kinnick Stadium for their game with Northwestern (5-4, 5-1):

The Iowa O-line starts its deep study on opponents during Tuesday meetings. Render has been a frequent contributor to the study of the defensive personnel and the fronts that the Hawkeyes might see in a week.

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“It’s almost like he’s watched film for our next opponent a couple of weeks back,” guard Ross Reynolds said. “We’ll get in there on Monday morning and it seems like he already knows everything that’s going to happen ... which is awesome.”

The reason why Iowa puts a premium on center is line calls. The center has to survey the defense and call out the front, which is basically how many D-linemen and linebackers are on the line of scrimmage and trying to figure out what they might do at the snap.

“He knew what he was doing, but sometimes he relied on other people to make certain calls,” guard Dalton Ferguson said. “Now, he is the center. He has to make those calls. His level of preparedness has gone up and I think his level of play has followed.”

Speaking of that, the world noticed this, too. ESPN’s Mel Kiper had him No. 2 on his rankings of senior centers. NFL Draft Scout has Render the No. 24 center. According to Draft Scout, the five-year average of centers who get drafted is six. It also says approximately 28 pure centers make it into NFL camps.

This is Render’s first season as a full-time starter. The fact that he’s even on the draft radar speaks to coming to attention as a senior, which coincided with the move to center.

The center thing has worked well.

“First question going into last spring is who is going to stabilize things in the middle?” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We ask our center to do an awful lot up there mentally, making calls, communication. Keegan seemed to be the best candidate.

“ ... He’s our most experienced guy, most confident. He’s obviously the hub of the group, literally and figuratively. He’s doing a really nice job up there with those guys.”

Let’s hold here for a second and look at Iowa’s O-line.

You have two potential NFL players at the tackle spots. Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson have NFL size. When their time comes, they’ll have a chance to show they can’t play. There’s a difference between that and having the chance to show you can play.

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Not every O-lineman is created equal. Render has done this math. The cool part is he tries to put the right things in front of the younger and potentially more NFL-like Hawkeyes.

“With Tristan, I might be the hardest on him because I’ve seen talent like his before and I’ve seen what it can do,” Render said. “I just want to make sure he makes the most of it, and goes in there and works hard.

“Same thing with A.J. (Jackson). I’ve seen guys at that position who have the unique skills that he does. I just want to make sure not to waste an opportunity and miss out. I want to make sure they’re on the same page. Just trying to help them move along the path.”

 

Render is a big dude at 6-4, 307. But he knows with Wirfs and Jackson. Wirfs is 6-5, 320 and a true sophomore. Jackson is 6-7, 320 and a redshirt sophomore.

“They’ve started taking the younger tackles under their wing,” Render said. “They’ve helped move along Mark (Kallenberger). I think that’s only going to get better as they get older.”

That isn’t falling on deaf ears. Wirfs is eyes wide open. As a tackle, a lot of Wirfs’ personnel study begins and ends with defensive ends. As the center, Render of course needs to have an eye on everything. “It’s kind of crazy,” Wirfs said. “You don’t realize how smart he really is.”

“I know he’s helped all of us,” Wirfs said. “He’s the leader of us out there. He’s making calls and sorting out the junk fronts. He’s taken that role and made it his.

“He’s meant a lot to me, what he’s done for me. I know it’s meant a lot to everyone else. He’s kind of like the voice for the O-line.”

Now, Iowa’s running game hasn’t always been a ballet on the field this season.

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The running game remains unsolved. The Hawkeyes are ninth in the league at 156.7 yards per game. Iowa’s 3.88 yards per carry is 10th. Running backs take a bite out of this, too.

 

This is the burden of being an Iowa O-lineman. The standards are high and with that comes pressure to come through.

What does O-line coach Tim Polasek always say?

It’s never good enough and improvement can never come fast enough. The Outland Trophies, the NFL money, it’s good to make it into the Iowa O-line room.

The standard takes a power lifter. Being a fifth-year senior, Render is acutely aware of the stakes. That’s why he puts everything he has into every call he makes.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to my call,” Render said. “If I see something wrong, it’s still my call. They can try to override it,

“When I do make a wrong call, it comes back to me. If someone doesn’t hear the call, it comes back to me. That’s what I want. It’s my senior year. I want that ownership.”

That’s going to be sort of a life theme for Render.

After this interview, he drove from Iowa City to Williamsburg. Render wants to be a high school athletics director whenever football is over. He met with Williamsburg AD and football coach Curt Ritchie, who also happens to be the father-in-law of former Iowa O-lineman and current Los Angeles Ram Austin Blythe.

Render’s five years at Iowa did teach him this:

“I want to stick around sports, but it doesn’t have to be big-time college football where I have my life taken away from me.”

You can shape lives and have a positive say from that seat, too.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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