Wrestling Mailbag: Iowa high school star Austin Blythe to play in the Super Bowl
The Super Bowl is this week, and, of course, there’s an Iowa connection.
Actually, it’s an Iowa high school wrestling connection.
Austin Blythe is the starting right guard for the Los Angeles Rams, who will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday in Atlanta. Blythe, at 26, is in his third year in the National Football League after a stellar career as an offensive lineman at Iowa.
Before his time as a Hawkeye, though, Blythe was one of the more dominant wrestlers in Iowa high school wrestling history.
Blythe won three heavyweight state titles for Williamsburg from 2009-11, making him one of 89 wrestlers in Iowa history that won three titles. He was also a state finalist as a freshman in 2008, making him one of 63 four-time state finalists.
In four years at Williamsburg, Blythe went 188-11 and recorded 146 pins, which is still the fifth-most in state history. He wrestled freestyle and Greco, too, and earned double All-American honors as a Cadet in 2008. He was also a Junior freestyle All-American in 2010.
“My dad was a wrestler, so I just kind of grew up around it and interested it,” Blythe said in a recent interview with Trackwrestling. “We just come from a family of wrestlers. It’s just something I always pictured myself doing. I really fell in love with it in high school.
“The work that it takes to be good at wrestling is very rewarding at the end of the day. I think it’s a sport where, if you really, truly work on it, you’re going to be rewarded. It’s the epitome of hard work paying off.”
► MORE WRESTLING COVERAGE FROM THE DES MOINES REGISTER
- WEEKEND TAKEAWAYS: Yarygin, prep conference tourneys highlight busy weekend
- CIML WRESTLING: Centennial's Monroe, Southeast Polk impress at CIML tourney
- HAWKEYES: No Spencer Lee or Kaleb Young as Iowa defeats Northwestern
- CYCLONES: Iowa State winning streak snapped in loss to Oklahoma State
- PANTHERS: Northern Iowa defeats Oklahoma for third straight dual win
As a senior in 2011, Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine tabbed Blythe as the No. 4 overall heavyweight in the country. He was listed among some household names, such as Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time NCAA Champ from N.C. State who’s a two-time world medalist, and Adam Coon, a two-time national finalist for Michigan who won a silver medal at the Greco world championships last year.
Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands said this past weekend that he recruited Blythe back then, but backed off when Kirk Ferentz decided he wanted Blythe for his football program.
The rest, of course, is history. Blythe started 49 of 50 games as a Hawkeye and was a crucial part of Iowa’s 12-0 regular season in 2015. He was chosen by the Indianapolis Colts in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
He was waived after the season, and the Rams scooped him up the very next day. Blythe played in every game in 2017. He started every game this season, helping an offensive line that paved the way for the league's third-best regular-season rushing total.
Even after all these years, he still gives a lot of credit to wrestling for his football success.
“I can’t say enough about it,” Blythe told Trackwrestling. “The positioning, just having that natural feel for where your hands are, how your knee bend is, where your hips are, how to use your hips — all that stuff that wrestling teaches you goes hand in hand with football, especially on the offensive line.
“Everything is a wrestling match in there. That’s where I learned it, on the wrestling mat and the wrestling room.”
Blythe acknowledged that he had half a thought of trying to play both football and wrestle while at Iowa, not unlike what Fresno State’s Josh Hokit is doing now. But the time commitment would’ve likely been too much, he said.
So he stuck with football and will be playing in the biggest game in American sports just three years into his professional career. It’s safe to say things have worked out for Blythe.
But he still scratches the wrestling itch every once in a while.
Two other members of the Rams’ offensive line, center John Sullivan and backup center Brian Allen, also grew up as wrestlers in Connecticut and Illinois, respectively. The three will talk about wrestling often.
Back in November, Blythe and Allen actually wrestled each other. The Rams went to Colorado Springs to prepare for their game against the Chiefs in Mexico City — which was ultimately played in Los Angeles — so they stopped by the Olympic Training Center.
“We actually went into the wrestling room … and I tell ya, he’s pretty explosive on his feet,” Blythe told Trackwrestling. “It was fun rolling around with him. We like to have those conversations in our spare time. It’s good fun.”
Now, then. Onto the wrestling mailbag. Some good questions this week. I applaud you guys for not asking 17 questions about Spencer Lee. Also, since we’re here, go Rams. I hope they win by 50.
Please give me a follow on Twitter, and I’ll keep you guys up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Thanks so much for your help here, and for reading.
Well, let’s just say this off the top: Brands probably doesn’t care about what other people think about Lee not wrestling. He’s going to do what he believes is best for his individual wrestlers. He has a long history of this.
He sat Sam Stoll in spurts last year. In March, Stoll rolled up three pins and took fifth at the NCAA Championships. Brands sat Michael Kemerer against Michigan last year. Kemerer then took fourth at nationals and defaulted out of the third-place match because of a shoulder injury.
Lee and Kaleb Young didn’t wrestle on Sunday, and I even wrote in my story that it robbed wrestling fans of a couple of high-profile matchups. Brands understands the frustration. He said as much afterward.
The one thing that probably frustrates everybody is the lack of a clear explanation for why they didn’t wrestle. I share that frustration.
But he stood firm on it being a “coach’s decision.” He’s looking ahead to March, which is only a month away, at this point. It’s going to be a dogfight for second place at both the Big Ten and NCAAs, with teams such as Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Michigan and others in the mix.
Brands wants his guys to be healthy and fresh for that sprint. If that means sitting them, for whatever reason, during a dual in January that Iowa wins handily without them, then that’s what he’s going to do.
I think you guys will appreciate that come March.
Work buddy Danny chiming in. And the short answer is that I don’t think it’ll be a problem.
I think we can all agree that Lee hasn’t looked like the world-beater we all thought he might this year. He missed Purdue, looked a little sluggish in his final two matches at the Midlands Championships and gassed hard against Iowa State’s Alex Mackall. He looked pretty strong against Illinois’s Travis Piotrowski, but didn’t in a 4-0 win over Minnesota’s Sean Russell.
Then, obviously, he missed the Northwestern dual. So something’s up, even if we don’t know exactly what.
But I keep coming back to Brands’ comments about Lee sitting out Sunday as part of a “plan.” He went on to say: “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for what’s important.”
What’s important is March — the Big Ten tournament and NCAA Championships. The conference tournament is, as of this writing, 39 days away.
In that time, Iowa has five more duals. I think you’d want to see Lee wrestle all five, of course, but he may not. The biggest one remaining for the Hawkeyes is a Feb. 24 dual at No. 4 Oklahoma State, where he'd wrestle Nick Piccininni.
That’s really the last big test for him before the postseason. If Spencer is still “iffy” by then, perhaps there’s reason to worry moving forward.
We can have a larger discussion about wrestlers sitting out of big duals and competitions. We’ve seen it a lot this season. We’ve seen it periodically in the past, too. It’s rubbed fans the wrong way. I get it. It can be frustrating.
But, as I’ve said before, Brands wants his guys ready for the postseason, and he’s going to do whatever he deems necessary to get them ready for that time.
The plan a year ago was for Lee to wear a knee brace up until the NCAA Championships, and he ended up dominating his way to first.
If Lee wins another national title in March, you guys will forget about him missing a few duals during the season.
Well, let’s see what you asked back then:
I said then that people should temper their expectations for Jacob Warner. I maintain that stance today.
Warner is 9-2 right now, with one bad loss. He’s obviously battled some injuries. Brands has said as much, and we saw it during his match against Willie Miklus. But he also wore an ankle brace on Sunday.
Despite all of that, he’s outscored his last four opponents 24-7. He hasn’t wrestled the toughest slate, but he’ll get his opportunities moving forward, starting this Sunday against Nebraska’s Eric Schultz, who’s ranked No. 10 nationally by Trackwrestling (Warner is fifth).
Here, too, is a quote from Brands from the media availability prior to Iowa’s dual against Rutgers. It’s a little revealing:
“Warner hasn’t had a lot of mat time. He’s been nicked up, injured. He wrestled at the worlds. We kept him off the mat. We didn’t plan on wrestling him until late November instead of mid-November. Then he misses time because of other reasons.
“He’s one of these guys, too, where, last week, he’s even too heavy. That’s a message to the public. Warner, we have to really bat down the hatches on some of that stuff, because it matters. And he knows it. He’s doing it. But the more mat time Warner has, the more that he’s into this and into his routine, he’s going to be better.”
Despite all of that, he’s winning and he’s looked a little better each time out. He’s still a redshirt freshman. Again, I think a lot of people though he’d come in and be like Lee, and that’s not a fair comparison. He’s been good so far. He’s only going to get better.
He has. He took many shots against Rutgers’ John Van Brill, scoring a takedown in the first period. I didn’t get to see much of his match against Illinois’s Eric Barone, because I was covering CIMLs. But I saw the box score. I know from experience that the box score doesn’t tell the whole story.
We’ve reached the point of the season where there’s film on virtually everybody now, and teams and athletes are going to strategize for specific matches. We see it all the time.
But I encourage you to watch every match much, much closer. Because you can see the intricacies that go into each step and setup and shot. Just because the points aren’t always there doesn’t mean he isn’t shooting or attacking. He is.
Sometimes, it results in a pretty headlock against Steve Bleise. Sometimes, it results in a workmanlike win over Van Brill.
Young has looked to score bundles of points this season. He’s 13-2 with seven bonus-point wins, but none since the Midland. I can see why that’s frustrating to watch. You guys are so used to seeing him put up points that it’s a problem when he doesn’t.
But it’s not a problem. Young’s challenge now is to counter the strategy that his opponents might have. Impose your will moving forward. He’s good enough to do that. Hiccups happen. It’s how you respond that counts.
It might. Keegan Shaw looked impressive this weekend.
In two matches, he scored six total takedowns and outscored his two opponents a combined 17-8. His 11-6 win over 24th-ranked Johnny Sebastian on Sunday was very nice — four takedowns after giving up the first.
I asked Brands straight-up if Shaw could man the spot moving forward. Here’s his response:
“Heck yeah. We want guys who want to be in there. He wants to be in there.”
That’s not a shot at Mitch Bowman, who cut down to 174 pounds and hasn’t looked super great outside of a strong third period against Minnesota’s Devin Skatzka. Brands also said that Bowman is dealing with an injury, so Shaw got the nod this weekend.
We’ll know more moving forward, but Shaw took advantage of his opportunity. It shouldn’t surprise anybody if he goes again against No. 7 Nebraska on Sunday.
Cam is right. How about those Cyclones?
They’re 7-2 overall, 4-1 against Big 12 competition and ranked 19th nationally by Track. Their losses this year are to Iowa and Oklahoma State. In seven wins, they’ve outscored opponents a combined 220-48. They’ve won 66 of 90 individual dual matches this season.
That’s impressive, and Iowa State will fight it out with Northern Iowa for second place in the Big 12, both in the regular season and in the conference tournament in March. That’s a remarkable turnaround from where they were just a couple of years ago.
Northern Iowa wrestles at Oklahoma State this weekend but hosts Iowa State on Feb. 21 at the West Gym in Cedar Falls. I expect the West Gym to be full that night, for the crowd to be rowdy, and for the action to be amazing.
Look at some of these matchups:
- 141: Ian Parker vs. Josh Alber
- 149: Jarrett Degen vs. Max Thomsen
- 174: Marcus Coleman vs. Taylor Lujan
- 184: Sam Colbray vs. Drew Foster
Sign me up for all of those.
There are always ebbs and flows with high school wrestling. The talent is in some areas some years and other areas in other years.
Central Iowa teams have dominated in recent years. There’s no denying that. Five of the last six Class 3A state champs are from the CIML — Fort Dodge last year, Southeast Polk the three years before that, Bettendorf in 2014, then Southeast Polk once more in 2013.
Before that, Waverly-Shell Rock was the team on top, winning four-straight titles from 2008-2011. Bettendorf won again in 2012. Before the Go-Hawks’ run, Iowa City West won back-to-back team titles in 2006 and 2007. Waverly won in 2005, and before them, Lewis Central won three in five years.
Looking at that written out, it’s kind of interesting to see the power move from one part of the state to the next over the last two decades.
Here are the Predicament’s current Class 3A team rankings:
- Southeast Polk
- Waverly-Shell Rock
- W.D.M. Valley
- Fort Dodge
- Western Dubuque
- Ankeny Centennial
- Des Moines East
That’s seven CIML schools, one from the Northeast Iowa Conference (Waverly), one from the Mississippi Valley Conference (Western Dubuque) and one from the Little Hawkeye (Norwalk).
I’m a little surprised that Bettendorf isn’t in the top 10. I think they could be a dark horse team come February — not to win it, but to perhaps earn a trophy.
I think we can all agree that Southeast Polk is the prohibitive favorite, and Waverly-Shell Rock is locked in as the front-runner for second. Behind those two, it’s anybody’s game. It’ll be fun to watch here in a couple weeks.
This likely won’t ever happen, but it is a fun thought. Imagine if Don Bosco, West Delaware, Waverly-Shell Rock and Southeast Polk were all in the same tournament together. The individual matchups would be so fun.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.