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Realizing the dream

Harding graduate, Iowa standout James Daniels hopes to go in the first round of the NFL Draft

WARREN — Back in January, not long after he decided to leave the University of Iowa early for the NFL, James Daniels was pondering what to do for the NFL Draft.

It didn’t take him long to decide he was going to stay home with his family. Part of him was confident he would be drafted, and part of him wondered how it would look if he had a big bash, and then his name wasn’t called.

“The thing about those watch parties is, say if I don’t get drafted, I don’t want a lot of people around me,” he said with a laugh back in January. “I just want it to be me and a couple of my family members.”

Things have changed quite a bit since then.

The 2015 Warren G. Harding graduate, who dramatically improved his draft status at the NFL Combine and at Iowa’s Pro Day, is holding a draft day party at a local banquet center Thursday. Reporters from ESPN, which is airing the first round live at 8 p.m., will be attending Daniels’ party. The second and third rounds are Friday and also are aired live on ESPN.

“Things change,” chuckled Daniels of changing his mind about the party. “We have the place rented out for Thursday and Friday, but hopefully we’re only there for one night.”

Daniels went from hoping to get drafted in one of the first seven rounds to hoping to get drafted in the first round.

Bypassing his senior season is looking like a smart move. Daniels received information from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, a committee of high-level personnel evaluators and scouts from various teams, following his junior season at Iowa, and after being given a second-round grade from the NFLDAB, he chose to enter the draft.

“Their job is to scout players, to scout college talent,” Daniels said, “so that’s the best assessment you can get.”

The information he and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz received came before Daniels competed at the NFL Combine and Iowa’s Pro Day, which is when his draft status improved considerably.

He had the fastest 20-yard shuttle time of all the offensive linemen who competed (4.4 seconds) at the combine. He finished second in the three-cone drill at 7.29 seconds, tied for sixth in the vertical jump at 30.5 and was 10th in broad jump at 9 feet.

Then there’s his size and measurements. He stands nearly 6-feet-4 and 306 pounds and has extraordinarily long arms (33 3/4 inches). It’s an impressive array of skills for a prospect who’s only 20 years old (he started college at 17).

“For as good as he is, he still has so much room for growth and maturity,” said Harding football coach Steve Arnold, who added that a representative of the Los Angeles Rams came to speak with him regarding James a few months ago. “We kind of talked about it as a staff (back when Daniels was in high school), and we told people, ‘Hey, this kid is special.’ You just saw it. His demeanor, his attitude, his work ethic, his talent, obviously — he’s the total package. When you have that, the sky’s the limit.”

Daniels is versatile as well.

He played guard as a freshman at Iowa before moving to center and said he can play just about anywhere on the offensive line. Daniels is regarded by several draft prognosticators as the top center in the draft, and his main competition as the No. 1 center is another Mahoning Valley native: former Austintown Fitch and Ohio State product Billy Price.

Both played in the Gold Tier of the All-American Conference. In fact, the two went head-to-head a handful of times — a battle Daniels apparently won.

“I did pretty good on him,” Daniels said. “He’s on my highlight tape a couple times.”

The two linemen are now friends who talk regularly. Daniels said they have become closer after spending a lot of time together at the combine. They also played together in the Big Ten, and Daniels said he’s looking forward to joining Price in another league: the NFL.

“It’s really cool because it just shows how much talent is in the area that we’re in Ohio,” he said. “I remember my sophomore year, he was a senior, I remember seeing him then and how good of a football player he is, and to go through college, and everything works out for both of us, and now we’re getting ready to get drafted. It’s just really cool for that to be able to happen.”

Daniels is still somewhat shocked he’s in this position.

Despite all the inside information, draft experts’ opinions and impressive play by Daniels, his decision to leave school early wasn’t easy. At the time, his draft rating was more obscure. Plus, he truly enjoyed playing in Iowa City.

Luckily, he has a good family lineage to lean on when making tough decisions. His older brother, LeShun Daniels Jr., also played at Iowa (they played together for two seasons) and has been part of three NFL teams since being picked up as an undrafted free agent last year. Their father, LeShun Sr., was an offensive lineman at Ohio State and then for the Minnesota Vikings.

James said his brother gave him some perspective in regards to the transition from college to the pros.

“He just said if you declare, make sure you’re ready for the real world,” James said. “In college, you’re on your own and stuff, but it’s nothing like being in the NFL. So, if you declare, make sure you’re ready to be alone in the real world.”

James understood and appreciated his brother’s outlook, but he couldn’t pass up on an opportunity he’s dreamed of since childhood.

“I’ve literally thought about playing in the NFL my entire life, ever since I was a little kid, and knowing that I’m going to get drafted in four or five days, it’s just crazy,” he said. “It’s a feeling I can’t even explain. Once I get drafted, this part of my life will be over. I’ll start to worry about, ‘All right, once I get there, I’ve got to do this, this and this.’ But right now I’m just trying to soak it all in because this process will only happen once.”

The Daniels hope that time is Thursday … but they’ll take Friday.

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