IOWA CITY, Iowa – When last season came to its painful conclusion, Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh was sort of in the same condition as his team.
He was battered and bruised emotionally, unsure if he even wanted to keep playing football.
Welsh struggled with personal issues to the point where he missed spring practice in order to get his mind healthy again.
His team also had struggled, losing its final three games, including a 45-28 beat-down against Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl to finish 7-6.
“The way that season ended, I couldn’t imagine a worse ending than that,” Welsh said Tuesday. “It definitely lit a fire I’d say.
“But I wouldn’t just chalk it up to the (TaxSlayer Bowl) alone. The last few games of the regular season we were a sick program and we really had to get our act together.”
Welsh and the Hawkeyes both have gotten their acts together and have made remarkable comebacks this fall. Welsh has started every game this season, while the Hawkeyes have won every game and are 10-0 for the first time ever.
Welsh said he never thought about quitting the Iowa team during his absence. He just had to step away from football in order to do some soul searching and get his mind healthy again.
Welsh credits his teammates and coaches for their unwavering support. He also credits a personal development book called the “Slight Edge” for getting him and his team back on track. The book became a reading assignment for the Iowa players shortly after the TaxSlayer Bowl debacle.
“I’d say the biggest contrast from this year to last year would be the central team message,” Welsh said. “Everyone just seems to be on the same page. Everyone has really just gotten on board with the Slight Edge concepts and really taken them to heart and bought in.
“And I think when any team does that regardless of whether they’re talented or not, it can set them up for success.”
Welsh’s talent never has been questioned.
After being redshirted in 2013, he appeared in all 13 games last season with seven starts. The Springboro, Ohio native also was named first-team Freshman All-Big Ten by the Big Ten Network.
But despite his individual success, Welsh still needed to step away from football.
And by doing so, Welsh seems to have re-energized himself.
He has lifted his performance to a higher level this season, much like his team. Welsh has started nine games at left guard and one at right tackle. He switched to right tackle against Northwestern because the position had been decimated by injuries and performed at a high level.
Playing Welsh at right tackle allowed for true freshman James Daniels to play guard instead of tackle where he had struggled in the previous game against Illinois.
Iowa’s rushing attack didn’t miss a beat as it shredded the Wildcats for 294 rushing yards during a 40-10 victory on Oct. 17 in Evanston, Ill.
“If you had told me in August that we were going to be playing in Chicago in October with the group that we had in the positions they had, I might have been a little concerned about that,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think that was probably the pinnacle for our whole team – we had a lot of moving parts that day and the guys played. As I said, somewhere in the last couple weeks, the only good news out of this whole stuff is when we start getting guys back, now we’ve got a stronger, deeper team than we had at the start of the season.
“It’s really been good to see that unfold, and it’s a credit to the players. They’ve been really positive. They’ve been flexible with their thinking, and you know, just like the backs, whoever can help out, they jump in there and do a good job with it.”
Welsh doesn’t really have an explanation for Iowa’s resurgence or for why the offensive line is better than last season when Iowa had two future NFL players starting at both tackle positions, including 2014 Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff.
“The biggest thing I remember (about last season) is we just weren’t finishing,” Welsh said. “We weren’t finishing the season. We weren’t finishing November, which is really an important month for us, November football. I’d say that was the biggest thing that I remember from last year.”
Iowa is ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing yards behind Ohio State with a 211.7 per-game average. The Hawkeyes only averaged 163.1 rushing yards per game last season.
It’s reasonable to think that Brian Ferentz being named Iowa’s first running game coordinator during the offseason might have something to do with the improved rushing attack. But Welsh said he hasn’t noticed any dramatic changes in practice or with the play calling.
“I can’t tell a difference in the way things have operated,” Welsh said. “I don’t think it’s had a huge part of the success. I’d like to think it’s what we’re doing as a team and the concepts we’ve bought into. But I can’t tell a difference to be honest.”
The biggest difference is that Iowa is winning and Welsh is thriving as a third-year sophomore. His personal issues are now behind him and the future looks bright for Welsh and for his team, which plays host to 2-8 Purdue on Saturday.
It just shows what a difference 10 months and a new outlook can have for a team and for a player.