Brown: Austin Blythe provides crucial veteran presence on Iowa O-line

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Austin Blythe is 23 years old and a married man. His teammates have a nickname for him.

“They just call me 'Dad,'” said Iowa’s starting center.

Blythe will start his 36th game when the Hawkeyes open the season against Illinois State Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

Offensive tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger, both redshirt sophomores, will be making their first career starts. And they’ll be leaning on dear old Dad for support.

“I’ll just tell them to embrace it, enjoy it,” Blythe said. “You’re starting your first game as an Iowa Hawkeye, and there’s nothing like it. At the same time, just calm down. It’s just another game. Fall back on your fundamentals and technique. You know how to play football. Just go out and play.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was quick to point out Tuesday that a lot of new players would be seeing action for the first time Saturday. But Ferentz knows that quarterback C.J. Beathard’s ability to move the offense requires good line play.

That includes two newbies at tackle who are replacing NFL rookies Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal.

“I’ve got all the faith that they’ll do a great job,” Beathard said.

So does running back Jordan Canzeri.

“We have two guys stepping in, and a lot of people have their doubts,” Canzeri said.  “‘Oh, how are they going to compare to last year?’ They’re their own people. They’re doing a great job with who they are and what they’ve been doing. We’re very confident in our line.”

Quarterback C.J. Beathard (16) and center Austin Blythe (63) two of Iowa's four captains Saturday.

Blythe’s first career start came against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago to open the 2012 season. He started at right guard, sandwiched between center James Ferentz and tackle Brett Van Sloten. He leaned on them.

“I was just nervous,” Blythe said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. You can’t really simulate that game-day tempo. A couple of snaps and you’re fine.”

Blythe actually has more career starts than rest of Iowa’s entire starting offensive line. Jordan Walsh, the right guard, will make his 25th start Saturday. It will be No. 10 for left guard Sean Welsh. So it’s easy to see why Blythe is the leader at the point of attack.

“He is out signal caller up front,” Ferentz said. “And it’s important we have someone we have a lot of faith in, and that’s certainly the case with Austin.”

Blythe was a three-time state wrestling champion at Williamsburg. He was also recruited by Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands. A week after he won his last individual title on the mat, Blythe’s team lost in the first round of the state duals. His wrestling career was over.

Iowa center Austin Blythe and his wife, Kiley.

Blythe married Kiley Ritchie, the daughter of his high school football coach, in May.  Ferentz said that since June, he’s seen his newlywed center embrace his senior year with better leadership skills off the field and technique on it.“It was hard, knowing I’d never wrestling competitively again,” Blythe said. “But I’m really loving what I’m doing here.”

Since the start of the Ferentz era in 1999, Iowa has had a future NFL player start in the offensive line every season. Blythe is the leading candidate to keep that streak alive.

“The future is going to fall as it will,” Blythe said. “I can’t worry about it. I can only worry about the next play.”

That comes Saturday. In Kinnick Stadium.

“It’s a new season, a new chapter, understanding what we did last year wasn’t good,” Blythe said. “It was average. We don’t want to be average.”

Right you are, Dad. Right you are.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.