Blythe: "Bell cow" who leads the Iowa O-line

Junior from Williamsburg integral to Hawkeyes' success

Iowa’s Damon Bullock (5) runs behind a block from center Austin Blythe (63) during the Hawkeyes’ game against Wisconsin last year. (Gazette photo)
Iowa’s Damon Bullock (5) runs behind a block from center Austin Blythe (63) during the Hawkeyes’ game against Wisconsin last year. (Gazette photo)

IOWA CITY — You meet Austin Blythe and it takes maybe 15 seconds, 30 tops, to realize this guy has it.

He speaks articulately, and has a command and maturity not found in a typical 22-year-old. He seems centered. Which is only fitting, since the junior from Williamsburg is entrenched on Iowa’s football depth chart as the starting center.

Brandon Scherff is the name-player on Iowa’s offensive line, the tackle on lots of preseason All-America teams. That’s based on merit, not hype. But at Iowa, you don’t have a great offensive line unless you have a capable center, physically and mentally.

“We’re always going to ask that position to be the bell cow for our offensive line,” said Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz. “With guys like Robert (Gallery), guys like Bryan (Bulaga), guys like Riley (Reiff), that bell cow from an outside perspective is at a different position. But for us, when you look at the good teams we’ve had, the good offensive lines we’ve had, we’ve had bell cow-type centers.

“Guys like Bruce Nelson, guys like Mike Elgin, guys like Rob Bruggeman, guys like James Ferentz. Those are guys that did really good jobs setting the tone for how we’re going to play as a line.”

The current bell cow is Blythe, and he has a year of experience leading the herd. As a sophomore, he played every offensive down of 10 games last year, and only came out of the other three games because Iowa victories were assured late in the fourth quarter.

It was a good transition season after starting nine games at guard as a freshman. And, of course, it left room for improvement.

“I always played guard in high school,” Blythe said. “Moving to center is something I really didn’t have a problem with, and I’m really happy with where I’m at right now.

“I’m understanding that this year I’m going to have to work on finishing plays a little bit better as far as putting guys on the ground, things like that. Also, understanding what it takes to play that many snaps, keeping my body healthy, and being able to help my team that way.”

Iowa probably did well to have as much offensive success as it had last year given Blythe was a new center and Jake Rudock was a new starting quarterback.

“Any time you break in a new center, it’s like breaking in a new quarterback,” Ferentz said. “When you get a new quarterback and a new center, that’s a little bit difficult.

“We had to do that last year, which wasn’t always fun. The benefit is because we did that last year, we should be looking at two more seasons of continuity there. That’s important to us.”

Blythe’s name was familiar in Iowa before he played a moment of football for the Hawkeyes. He was a three-time state wrestling heavyweight champion at Williamsburg, and finished second as a ninth-grader. His career record was 187-11. He had 143 pins. Wow.

“He was a big fellow that could trap guys,” Iowa head wrestling coach Tom Brands said via email. “If he put you on your back it was over.

“I remember him being a little top-heavy but figured if he learned to hand-fight he would be tough in college. What he does now is a particular kind of hand-fighting and he does it damn well!”

Brands wanted Blythe. His main competition wasn’t another wrestling program, but Kirk Ferentz’s football team.

“I called Norm Parker one day because we knew football was on him and I asked Norm if they were serious about him,” Brands said. “After that conversation I knew he was headed to Ferentz.”

“It was definitely tough to give wrestling up,” Blythe said. “Truth be told, before I got the offer to play for the Hawkeyes, I was going to wrestle. But it just kind of opened my eyes to what the possibilities were, and the rest is history.”

Though Blythe dismisses it as not being a factor in his decision, there is a National Football League. There isn’t a National Wrestling League. Not for real wrestling, anyhow.

“That team aspect of football is what pulled at me and what ultimately led to my decision,” Blythe said. “Just being able to enjoy moments like we did last year against Northwestern (an overtime win at Kinnick Stadium) with a team is just something you can’t feel in any other sport, I think. That’s ultimately why I chose to play football.”

Brian Ferentz, who wrestled himself at Iowa City High before playing football at Iowa, said “I would be comfortable saying Austin Blythe would have been an All-American wrestler.”

But Blythe was known for more in Williamsburg than wrestling. He helped the Raiders to three state football playoff berths and a 28-5 record from 2008 to 2010.

The town is a half-hour from Iowa City. It has sent some walk-ons, an assistant strength coach, and a team manager to Kirk Ferentz, but Blythe has given Williamsburg some real ownership in the game-day Hawkeyes.

“I think it’s great for the community,” said Williamsburg football coach Curt Ritchie. “In Austin’s case, it’s extra-special because of who he is and how he does it. He’s easy for all of us to support and look up to. He’s very humble, very appreciative.”

Oh, Ritchie’s daughter is engaged to marry Blythe. Kiley Ritchie was Blythe’s Williamsburg classmate. He graduated in May, and in just three years. She was in the College of Education’s Honors Opportunities Program. She is about to start her first year as a fourth-grade teacher and high school girls’ cross country/track coach at English Valleys Schools in North English.

An educated guess: If the couple has kids, they’ll grow up ... centered.

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