The first sign James Daniels picked up on that he would soon be pivoting from left guard to center in his second pro season came early this spring, when he received an actual phone call — not merely a text message — from position coach Harry Hiestand.
“Usually when coach talks to me, he just texts me,” Daniels, 21, the Bears 2018 second-round millennial from Iowa, told PFW Wednesday of the news delivered by his baby boomer coach. “So when he called me, I knew he was going to say something.”
Hiestand can be a man of few words but never pulls punches. The gist of his message was that center is the position in which the second-year player Daniels is most familiar, left guard is the spot Cody Whitehair has the most experience — albeit not since college — and this move will be the best for all parties.
“I was like, OK, I know that he’s doing that to help the team become better, so I’m all for it,” Daniels said.
The timing of this move makes a heck of a lot more sense than John Fox’s Bears informing Kyle Long, on the cusp of becoming an All Pro at right guard entering Year 3, late in 2015 training camp that he was kicking outside to right tackle for the first time. Daniels, after starting the final 11 games as a rookie at left guard, still is only two years removed from being among the best centers in college football with the Hawkeyes, and things have slowed down immensely for him in his first full NFL offseason.
“This offseason, I took some time off then started training,” Daniels said after recalling his nonstop pre-draft process a year ago that included around 12 visits and 3-4 additional private workouts. “Went on vacation a couple times, but this offseason was way more relaxed than last offseason. I could actually just stay at home and just chill.”
Although Daniels made it extremely clear that re-familiarizing with snapping the football is hardly like riding a bike — “no, that’s something you have to focus on literally every play” — his position coach sounds thrilled with the progress of Daniels and Whitehair in their new (old) posts.
“It’s more the people because the two guys made it seamless,” Hiestand explained when we asked whether the unit’s overall continuity in returning all five starters makes the interior flip-flop easier. “The way they handled it. The way they approached it. The way they play the positions. That made it simplest.”
Make no mistake: The process is very much ongoing, and Hiestand isn’t about to start gauging what their ceilings might be in their natural spots before the armor goes on and the thudding commences this summer. He would only say that both players were "solid" in 2018, but it's clear reading between the lines this switch is being made with greater designs than "solid" in mind.
“Until we get pads on, it’s hard to judge,” Hiestand said. “You can see their functioning, understanding of jobs, working their techniques.”
Helping Daniels are Whitehair, who’s quick to correct his linemate if a call is wrong, and fellow bumper Kyle Long, whose healthiest offseason in years couldn’t come at a better time.
“He’s helping James a bunch and getting him and Bobbie together,” Hiestand said. “The whole group benefits from him being in there.”
Mitch Trubisky said one way he knows Daniels is transitioning smoothly is that his new center seems to be coming out of his shell as a sophomore.
“James, he’s very smart, so the transition’s been very easy for him so far,” Trubisky said. “I would say the only difference this year is that I’m finally hearing him talk. He doesn’t talk much last year. So having him at center, we talk a lot more off the field and on the field as well. Hearing him make calls. Just that constant communication back and forth. It’s been great. I’ve kind of seen like a new side of him as well, because the position change has forced him to talk a little more, be more vocal and he’s doing a great job of it. He’s a very football intelligent player. It comes easy to him and obviously he played it in college, so it’s been a natural switch and it’s been going really well. Cody’s been doing a great job at guard, also.”
Daniels is even cracking jokes (we think) in reminding us that Trubisky isn't only seeing a new side of him.
“When we do under center, Mitch touches me more probably than I’ve ever been touched before. So it’s good that … you just have to have a good relationship — and we’re close — so it’s been good.”
— Arthur Arkush