When Austin Blythe won a starting role at guard last season, he was the first redshirt freshman to earn a spot on Iowa's O-line since . . . Riley Reiff punched his way through in 2009.
That's pretty good company. Blythe held up, despite a high-ankle sprain in week 4 against Central Michigan that cost him three games and despite some heady competition.
Northern Illinois brought an array of terrific pass rushers against the Hawkeyes. Iowa State's Jake McDonough was a handful, not to mention linebackers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott. Minnesota had giant DT Ra'shede Hageman. Michigan State and Penn State had sturdy inside defenders. Go all the way down to Purdue and Indiana and there were DTs Kawan Short and Adam Replogle, both of whom are in NFL training camps right now.
A year into it, Blythe earned enough trust from coaches to earn a promotion from guard to center. Promotion? Definitely. It's a huge step up in responsibilities. Iowa's O-line just seems to function better when it has a center who blends muscle and brains.
"It really won't be a big adjustment at all," Blythe said. "I played there during my redshirt year. Last year I played guard, but I still took reps at center."
It's definitely a promotion.
Key 2012 factor: The one thing that had to make O-line coach Brian Ferentz happy was the fact that Blythe dealt with some adversity last season. Blythe came back from the ankle injury and some tough times on the field.
During the Northern Illinois game last season, the Huskies moved a speed rusher over Blythe. It paid off with a sack and an intentional grounding penalty just before halftime.
ďHe finished the half on a sour note, but I told Austin that I went the wrong way on the second play of the game,Ē center James Ferentz said. ďI sat him down and said, ĎHey, here I am, five years later and Iím still making mistakes.í Ē
You live and you learn.
Offseason factor: The position change is the thing for Blythe in 2013. Part of his new responsibilities will be counting blockers, accounting for the middle linebacker.
What exactly the center is saying out there, "We ID the front and we ID the middle linebacker, who we're supposed to block. It's pretty much an 'us five have those five' thing. . . . It hasn't been a big adjustment. All you have to do is see the big picture on the field, know where guys are and you've got to study film, too."
Here's Brian Ferentz on the move: "I think heís done a nice job so far," Ferentz said this spring. "We're a long, long way from playing a game and we're a long, long way from being ready to play a football game. Iím pleased with how Austin has responded to what we have asked him to do."
Competition: It feels as though this is Blythe's job. Sophomore Eric Simmons and junior walk-on Tommy Gaul could give him a shove, but Blythe is a fierce competitor (check the prep wrestling resume) and doesn't back down from challenges. The question here is if he fits better at center than guard? At 6-3, 300, he has a stockier body and the space between blocker and defender disappears. This should suit his skill set.
Long, but excellent quote from Brian Ferentz on the transition that Blythe faces:
"I would explain it this way: The further you are away from the football, the slower things happen, which sounds silly, because nothing really happens that slow out there, but the difference is really that knew neutral zone, you are dealing with a guy who is at least a yard away from you, or should be, and then potentially widens a little bit, too," he said.
"So, you are dealing with whatever-- Iím not good at arithmetic or geometry or any of that, but you start measuring all that, itís a longer distance from Point A to Point B. You move the guards, Point A to Point B becomes shorter. Youíre still dealing with the neutral zone, but that guy is going to be a lot heavier. Usually you are dealing with guys that are shaded, head up or inside shapes, they donít get too far away. When you are a center, when itís third down, itís great because people are paying some kind of even spacing and nobody is near you.
"For the most part, when we go out to practice every day, our defense is going to have a nose tackle and there is no neutral zone and there is no space.† Point A to Point B, sometimes your helmets are touching.
"So, I think that whole transition just becomes -- our more experienced players do better with it, because they have been asked to do those things for three or four years. Our younger guys, thereís always a little bit of an adjustment period and itís kind of like I remember watching [his brother] Steven learn how to swim. My dad picked him up and threw him in the water and he learned how to swim. Now, not to say there was negligence or anything like that he had the floaties on and all that, but basically, you put the guys in there, you throw them in, they splash around the water a little bit and they figure out itís not that bad, they are floating, they will live.† So, thatís what the transition is like."
Why No. 16?: Blythe has a shot at being Iowa's starting center for three seasons. By the time he's a senior -- if development continues across the board -- he'll be a top 5 player.
Outlook: There will be a learning curve here, but expect Blythe to take to the job. It's a key position. If you look at Iowa's O-line, there's experience at both tackle spots and then . . . two new starters and a new center on the inside. O-line has a great chance to be Iowa's top position group, but there could be a few shaky moments in the launch.Click here for an interactive look at the complete Top 45 series.