LOS ANGELES – Those watching Iowa’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 25 years Friday should take a few moments to observe and appreciate the guy wearing No. 63.
Senior center Austin Blythe will be making his 49th and final career start in a Hawkeye uniform and 45th in a row.
His position coach, a former center himself, has been appreciating Blythe for four years.
“He’s a much better player than I believe he gets credit for,” Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said. “In my opinion, he was the best center in college football. No one will sway me on that.”
The linebackers coach used a reporter's question about when he knew there was something special about this team with his players.
Accolades for an offensive lineman are often a crap shoot. There’s not much in the way of stats to evaluate, and those voting for lineman awards are media members or coaches who haven’t scrutinized enough game film to make a fully informed judgment.
Blythe was one of three finalists for the Rimington Trophy, given to college football’s top center, but Alabama’s Ryan Kelly won the award. Blythe didn’t make first-team all-Big Ten Conference – that honor went to Michigan State’s Jack Allen for the second straight year over Blythe, a second-teamer.
“I’ve seen the guy that did win the award, and I wouldn’t trade him for Austin,” Ferentz said. “And I’ve seen the guy that was ahead of him in our conference, I wouldn’t make that trade, either.”
But Ferentz thinks the ultimate reward is coming for the 6-foot-3, 290-pound middle man of Iowa’s offensive line.
“I’ve talked to some people I respect, people I trust. I think he’s going to get drafted a lot higher (in the NFL) than people would imagine,” Ferentz said. “I think he’ll be the first center drafted. That would be my projection. I think he’ll have a nice, healthy NFL career.”
Blythe, a former elite wrestler, is physical. He’s durable. He’s fast. He is often the first Hawkeye lineman racing downfield to deliver second-level blocks.
Remember all those questions about Iowa’s new offensive tackles? And how dire it seemed when Boone Myers and Ike Boettger got injured? The Hawkeyes were just fine, running up the middle behind Blythe and first-team all-Big Ten guard Jordan Walsh.
If you haven’t watched him closely before, Friday’s your last chance to see how much Blythe means to the Hawkeyes.
The Iowa center is about to play his last college game in the Rose Bowl.
Blythe is relishing the moment, too, with his wife, Kylie. The two were married in May, and when players were allowed their own roommates on this trip, somebody in the Hawkeye program suggested that Blythe be able to share a room with his wife.
“It's been a lot of fun. We were able to spend our first Christmas together,” he said. “Been together … four years, and to be able to spend that with her, to share that with her has been a lot of fun."
And yes, Blythe said, he's been appropriately teased by his teammates as you might expect.
"I thought about it being my senior year, wanting to spend it with the guys," he said. "But at the end of the day it was a no-brainer."
The Iowa offensive line coach tackles the topic of breaking routine.
Blythe’s primary focus, of course, is on capping his career with a win in the Rose Bowl against Stanford (4 p.m. CT Friday, ESPN) to extend a program record for wins in a season. Iowa’s senior class has never won a bowl game.
But he knows there’s more football ahead.
“That's my dream. After the season I'm going to start training for it,” said Blythe, who has been told he needs to get his weight closer to 300 pounds. “We'll see what happens. I'm going to work hard like I've always been doing.
“I think I just need to really show that I can carry more weight. I'm not the biggest guy. I think people are going to try to knock me for that. But if they turn on the film, I don't think my size has really hindered me too much.”