Curt Ritchie coaches football at Williamsburg High, just west of Iowa City.
He has seen a lot of big farm boys get into 3-point stances. He hardly ever started a freshman, not until he saw Austin Blythe.
“We’d have these sprints and he’d be keeping up with the skilled players,” Ritchie said. “Then we’d have these competitions, like tug of war. Austin’s team always won that. In fact, sometimes we’d make sure there were fewer guys on Austin’s side, but he would win anyway.”
At that point Ritchie didn’t suspect that Blythe would be protecting Jared Goff and clearing the underbrush for Todd Gurley. He hadn’t yet realized that Blythe would marry his daughter Kylie. All of that has happened, and Blythe has replaced Jamon Brown at right guard for the Rams and may be there for a while.
Pro Football Focus, for what it’s worth, ranked Blythe as the second-best guard in the whole NFL, just two-and-a-half years after Blythe became a seventh-round pick for the Colts.There are only seven rounds, you know.
“I wasn’t sweating it out,” Blythe said after a Rams’ practice last week. “I figured that if I didn’t get picked, I’d wind up at somebody’s camp and see what happened. And here we are.”
Those who were looking to doubt the Rams this year pointed at an offensive line that made all 16 starts without injury or demotion in 2017. Surely that wouldn’t happen again. So far it has, with Blythe making all the starts after Brown, now playing for the Giants, was suspended and beaten out.
Center John Sullivan, left guard Rodger Saffold and tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein get their jerseys dirty to keep Goff’s clean. The quarterback has been sacked 19 times and hit 40 times in 10 games.
Blythe is listed at 6-foot-3, 298. That’s actually a Prius-sized guard in the NFL. But Blythe was listed as a center coming out of the University of Iowa, not that it mattered.
“They teach guys to play all the positions,” he said. “I think that’s one reason we’re all pretty well-prepared for the NFL. I’m not a guard or a center, I’m a lineman.”
He was more famous as a wrestler, in a state where the gyms bulge with spectators at each dual meet. Blythe set a state record with 143 pins and was the first to reach four consecutive state heavyweight finals, winning his last three.
Brian Allen, the rookie from Michigan State, is the Rams’ backup center. He was a champion wrestler at his suburban Chicago high school.
“We’re both dying to get on the mat against each other,” Blythe said, grinning. “We’ve been talking about it. Maybe after the season.”
Wrestling’s correlation with football is well-known. It’s how a 298-pounder masters the concept of leverage. It also is the ultimate zero-sum game, with no partners and no hiding places.
It occurred to Blythe that he might double up in college, with wrestling and football, but he realized he’d have trouble with the recovery time. The identity of the college never was in question, although he visited Stanford and was intrigued by (A) his conversations with Andrew Luck and (B) the seductive charms of In-N-Out Burger.
“I grew up wanting to be an Iowa Hawkeye,” he said. “We’d play our games on Friday night and then go to Iowa City, tailgate for a while and then watch the game. The first time I went there I realized that was the place for me. And that goes back to Dallas Clark and Brad Banks, guys like that.”
Banks was the quarterback who was the runnerup to USC’s Carson Palmer in the 2002 Heisman Trophy voting. The Trojans happened to blow out Iowa in the Orange Bowl that year.
Blythe went to three bowls at Iowa. He played with 49ers’ tight end George Kittle, Chargers’ safety Desmond King, Broncos’ linebacker Josey Jewell and Redskins’ tackle Brandon Scherff.
When he was a senior the Hawkeyes were 8-0 in the Big Ten and went to the Rose Bowl, although Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey dampened the trip.
But there was no shortage of scouts. Nine Iowa offensive linemen have been drafted since 2010. Five, since 1997, were first-round picks.
“A lot of it is just the guys they recruit,” Blythe said. “Iowa guys are gritty. They don’t mind getting their noses down on the ground. And they don’t mind the weather.
“But I think I’ve gotten soft since I’ve been out here. We played at Denver and it was barely below freezing. I thought it was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.”
It wasn’t, but he will have plenty of games to compare.