IOWA CITY — Iowa took the “first to offer” gambit with Austin Blythe to the extreme.
The Iowa staff floated Blythe a scholarship offer in June 2009, when he was a 16-year-old junior at Williamsburg High School. Iowa was way ahead of the curve here. So much so, it kind of freaked out the community. The offer almost came during his sophomore year, not long after Blythe claimed the first of three state heavyweight wrestling championships.
“I think we held them off from offering for a little bit,” Williamsburg football coach Curt Ritchie said. “Myself and his parents didn’t know if he could play at that level and didn’t know how it would affect him as far as preparation went.”
Blythe didn’t pull the trigger right away, but did eventually say yes to the Hawkeyes the spring before his senior season. “First to offer” paid off. Offers from Wisconsin, Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas came in. An offer and a visit from Stanford gave Blythe some pause.
Coaches from Florida and Oregon also stopped by the Williamsburg High School to chat. Yes, the Urban Meyer two-time national championship Florida and the 2011 national runner-up Oregon found their way to Williamsburg, the one in Iowa, not the history buff’s paradise in Virginia.
The early offer from the Hawkeyes didn’t skew Blythe’s perspective, either.
“It really turned out to be the opposite once they did offer, he showed even more motivation on his part to continue to improve and get better,” Ritchie said. “I think it was a good thing to get the offer that early. It made him realize it was out there for if he wants to keep working.”
So, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Blythe, as a 6-3, 275-pound redshirt freshman, has seemingly won the right guard spot. He was No. 1 when camp started and hasn’t budged. He also doubles down as a part-timer at No. 2 center, which might foreshadow where he eventually ends up.
Blythe has followed a crazy philosophy to put himself in position to be the first redshirt freshman to start on Iowa’s O-line since Riley Reiff, yes, the former Hawkeye and first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions last April.
Blythe listens and he works hard. That’s so crazy that, yeah, it can work.
“I think work ethic and hardness, for lack of a better term,” first-year Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said. “Guys who can come everyday and have some consistency about how they approach things, I think that’s going to set anybody apart in our group.”
Blythe has never been afraid of a physical test. Blythe’s wrestling resume will back that up. You can definitely file that under “hardness.”
He finished his career 187-11 and holds the Iowa prep record with 143 career pins. He finished 50-1 as a senior with three heavyweight titles and a runner-up finish as a freshman heavyweight.
“The mentality and physicality that comes with wrestling definitely translates to football, positioning, hand placement, that all comes together,” Blythe said. “Wrestling is a ‘go get ‘em sport.’ Football is a very physical sport, but it’s a different kind of physical.”
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz fell in love with the idea of “wrestlers as offensive linemen” during his first stint at Iowa, as offensive line coach from 1981 to 1989. Mark Sindlinger was a four-year letter winner for Ferentz from 1983-86. He also wrestled, winning two Big Ten titles and finishing fourth and sixth in the NCAA meet.
Brian Ferentz, a wrestler himself during his prep days at Iowa City High, has his eye set on the same traits.
“I think we obviously like to recruit anybody with a wrestling background, for a lot of reasons,” Brian Ferentz said. “People talk about leverage and things like that, but No. 1 is work ethic.
“All wrestlers have a work ethic, because it is the one sport where you are on your own. Failing in wrestling is a very public and very transparent humiliation, if you will. We like recruiting those kinds of guys.”
Blythe’s brother, Holden, tried football at wrestling at Central College. He cautioned Austin on the degree of difficulty. Kirk Ferentz’s football program has had few two-sport athletes, with a couple of tracksters and just one wrestler (Jordan McLaughlin).
Ritchie could see a scenario where Blythe returned to wrestling. Blythe said no, definitely no.
“I might be able to be good or decent in both,” Blythe said when he committed to the football scholarship at Iowa, “but I don’t think I could be great in one if I did both.
“I chose football because I love everything that goes along with it. I love the preparation and everyone working toward a common goal. I’m not saying they don’t do that in wrestling, but just working within the team. I love that part about football. I love everything else that comes a long with football.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT IOWA OFFENSIVE LINE
The depth chart
Offensive tackles: No. 1s – LT Brandon Scherff, so., 6-5, 310; RT Brett Van Sloten, jr., 6-7, 292; Nos. 2 – LT Andrew Donnal, so., 6-7, 302; RT Nolan MacMillan, jr., 6-6, 290. Guards: No. 1 – LG Matt Tobin, sr., 6-6, 290; RG Austin Blythe, #fr., 6-3, 275; Nos. 2 – Conor Boffeli, jr., 6-5, 290; Jordan Walsh, #fr., 6-4, 270. Center: No. 1 — James Ferentz, sr., 6-2, 284; No. 2 — Tommy Gaul, so., 6-3, 264. (#= redshirt freshman)
Going into week 1, it looks like the Iowa five will hold. Even if freshman Austin Blythe is passed by junior Conor Boffeli on the depth chart (no signs that will happen), the Iowa O-line will be made up of five Iowa natives for the first time since . . . who knows? The question for this group is if it will leave its physical mark on a game. They are brutish, led by James Ferentz, who is among the Big Ten’s best “finishers.” Iowa’s O-line has been given a lofty perch as far as preseason hype goes, but the Hawkeyes are replacing three starters including both tackles. Scherff is physically imposing. Tobin, a returning starter, had his best games at the end of ’11. Blythe has inserted himself with sound technique. Van Sloten might feel heat from MacMillan at some point.
The No. 2s
Tackles — Van Sloten missed last week’s scrimmage with a minor knee injury. With MacMillan still nursing a broken hand, Donnal got his first chance to do something. He held up, particularly when he sealed the edge long enough for QB Jake Rudock to throw a TD pass. MacMillan will go as far as his health will allow. Guards — Conor Boffeli seems to be the odd man out at guard with Blythe’s quick rise on the depth chart. He’s a proven veteran who’s ready to play. He also knows center and has that kind of inside position flexibility. Redshirt freshman Jordan Walsh and junior Drew Clark will compete for guard No. 4. Coaches talked up Walsh in the preseason.
In the scrimmages on the last two weekends, true freshman Ryan Ward has been the No. 2 left tackle. That’s kind of noteworthy. The 6-5, 275-pounder was a great get out of Providence Catholic (New Lenox, Ill.), the same school that produced former all-Big Ten Hawkeye and NFL Eric Steinbach. He’s probably more like tackle No. 5 and is likely a redshirt, but that’s a pretty good depth chart push for a true freshman OL. Sophomore Eric Simmons, who transferred in from Iowa Western Community College, has been running with the No. 2s at left guard. True freshmen tackle Mitch Keppy and guard Reid Sealby have been solid on the No. 3 unit. A true freshman walk-on to keep an eye on is Jalen Chambers, whose 6-5, 300-pound frame is a good start.
– Marc Morehouse