With no live sports on the docket for the foreseeable future and everyone now finding themselves with a lot more time at home, we’re working to bring more content from current and former Hawkeyes first hand. That started with our virtual sit down with AJ Epenesa a little over two weeks ago. While Epenesa looks to hear his name called in the NFL Draft tonight, we’re bringing you the next installment in our virtual Q&As.
Today, BHGP virtually “sits down” with Austin Blythe, former Iowa Hawkeye and current LA Ram offensive lineman, to find out what is going on in his life.
1. Thanks to Austin Blythe for taking the time to answer some questions for us here at BHGP. Blythe is from Williamsburg, IA and was a mainstay on the Hawkeye O-line from 2012-2015. Today we’ll go into some questions about his time at Iowa, his time in the NFL, and a few other miscellaneous subjects but we would be remiss if we didn’t start by talking about the current environment we’re all living in right now. Let’s start out by asking where are you at right now as you try to social distance as well as prepare for a potential NFL season this fall?
AB: I am currently in Williamsburg, Iowa with my family. It’s been a blast to have so much family time when I get so little during the season, so that part has been a real blessing. As far as training, I purchased some gym equipment and was able to set it up out at my parents place. I will be ready to go whenever the season does start!
2. It was recently announced that fellow Rams lineman Brian Allen was the first NFL player to test positive for COVID-19. While I value HIPAA regulations, I think the fact that the NFL is coming out and telling people about a member that tested positive is important as it reiterates that COVID-19 isn’t just something that the elderly and sick get, it can impact anyone. With that said, it looks as if Allen is doing well. You have been in the media before with stories with Allen so I’m guessing you two are fairly close. Have you talked with him since he started having his symptoms a few weeks ago? Does the fact that it impacted someone so close to you and physically so like you change anything?
AB: I have talked with Brian a little bit, but mostly just what his symptoms were like. It seems like this deal is so different for everyone who gets it and he was no exception. I’m really glad he’s doing well now though because he’s such a good friend. As far as changing anything for me, not really. Just trying to follow the social distancing guidelines and keep myself and my family safe.
3. What are the inner thoughts around the NFL, especially among the players, on what we’ll see in terms of an NFL season this fall?
AB: I do believe that an NFL season will happen. But I have no idea when it will start and what it will look like when it does start. It’s been a crazy last month and I am anxious to see how the next couple weeks look as that will play a major role in what the season will hold for us this fall.
4. Final question on the NFL for now, what are you doing to stay in playing shape?
AB: As I mentioned earlier, I purchased some gym equipment as everything is shut down as far as gyms go. So, I have been lifting and staying in shape that way. I am very thankful I have the ability to still train fairly conventionally because I am sure a lot of guys aren’t.
5. Switching gears back to Iowa. You are from Williamsburg where you starred in football, wrestling, and track. Were there ever any other thoughts besides playing for the Hawkeyes? Did you have a backup school? When did you receive your offer for Iowa and how was the offer conveyed? That is, do you get a phone call, a letter, home visit?
AB: There weren’t ever really any serious thoughts about doing anything other than playing football at Iowa, but I tried to do my due diligence and make sure I knew exactly that’s what I wanted by taking a few visits to a couple places. I never really had a backup just because I knew in my heart I’d always be a Hawkeye. I received a written offer the day it was legal for the University to send me one. I believe I had a verbal offer at some point in one of my underclass seasons, but of course nothing could be official until my junior year of high school.
6. You redshirt your first season and then basically became a four-year starter which culminated in being named a Rimington Trophy finalist (top three) your senior season. During your time there you got to play with numerous linemen that ended up playing in the NFL including Riley Reiff, Adam Gettis, Brandon Scherff, and Andrew Donnal. Can you take a few minutes to help us understand how Iowa can continue to produce quality linemen year in and year out?
AB: To me, it starts with the kind of guys that you mentioned. Every guy that Iowa tries to recruit, especially on the offensive line, are guys that like to work. They’re the type of guys who want to play ball and they want to do everything they do the right way. Then after that, you have coaches of the most elite caliber. Coach Ferentz is the best in the business at maximizing guys’ potential once they step foot on campus. Another guy that has been talked about a bunch at being the best is Coach Doyle. He’s another guy that’s the best in the business at what he does. No one does more for guys than what Coach Doyle does for his players at Iowa. I am 100% confident in saying that none of us that played at Iowa would be half the players we are without these two guys. Then of course they have built a staff around them that are all like minded and that lends itself to huge success.
7. As a follow-up to that question, what would you say to high school, four and five star o-line guys that should make them understand that Iowa is the place to go?
AB: All you have to look at is the track record that Iowa has. It truly speaks for itself. Then if you want more, just do some research of interviews that former players give. I would bet most of those interviews talk about how good of a place Iowa is. You will get to be coached by some of the greatest coaches, and all around great men, in the country. So, that’s why you should want to come to Iowa.
8. How often are you able to stay in contact with former teammates? I would imagine that there would be some incredible stories from your all of your experiences.
AB: We are able to get together quite often actually. I think that’s another thing that makes Iowa so great. The relationships you build will last a lifetime. Whenever some guys get together it is always a ton of fun getting to relive memories from college.
9. Looking at your college accolades, I see that you won the Iron Hawk Award in 2015, can you talk about that a bit? What does it consist of? Tristan Wirfs won the award this season so I’m guessing you were able to lift an incredible amount of weight.
AB: The Iron Hawk award is much more than just lifting a lot of weight. It’s an award that goes to the guy who shows up day in and day out and just lifts hard. You could have the lowest maxes on the team but if you show guys that you are willing to show up and work then you are more than worthy of winning the award. In my opinion anyone who lifts in that weight room is worthy to win it.
10. Your senior season, Iowa started out 12-0 before the heartbreaking loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship and then the Christian McCaffrey game that we don’t like to speak about. What I found interesting is that you were the only Iowa player drafted that season and you went, let’s be honest, toward the later part of the draft (round 7, pick 248 to Indianapolis)! Do you ever find yourself going through the draft list from that year and seeing some of the players chosen before you and using that as motivation? Not to name any names, but a random sampling of some linemen chosen much earlier in the draft shows that there were some bad choices made by many GMs that year.
AB: That’s just the nature of the business. I know what I bring to the table and all I can say is that there were 31 teams who missed out on me and that is what I kind of strive to show when I play. I think that’s just the kind of guys Iowa gets. I try to work hard and perform to the best of my ability to help my team win football games.
11. Have you had much of an opportunity to watch current Hawkeye center Tyler Linderbaum? Can you give us any thoughts on his future and specifically how he compares to yourself and maybe James Daniels at similar points in your careers?
AB: Tyler has all the tools to be a great center for Hawks. I was able to watch some of the games and I enjoy watching how he plays. He is athletic and he plays with a little bit of a mean streak. I think if he continues to improve he will have a very successful career at Iowa and long after that in the NFL.
12. How many Iowa games were you able to watch this past season? Did you make it to any of the games?
AB: I was able to watch maybe 2/3’s of the games or so. It’s hard to catch them sometimes with traveling and all that, but I try and watch as much as I can. Last year was the first year that we were not able to go to a game. The previous three years it worked out that the Hawks had a home game on our bye week.
13. Do you follow the Iowa wrestling team (I ask knowing that the answer is yes)? Were we going to win the title this year? Do you have a favorite wrestler?
AB: Of course I do! It’s hard saying whether or not we would have won the championship because so much goes into doing that. Wrestling is just as much mental as it is physical and if a guy here or there is off mentally, it could really hurt your chances in the team race. Especially with teams chasing you like Penn State and others. I will say this looked like our best chance to win in a long time. I really enjoy watching Tony Cassioppi wrestle. He brings a lot of athleticism to the mat at a weight that sometimes doesn’t have a lot, and of course being a former heavyweight myself, it’s fun to watch.
14. Let’s jump back to the NFL for a few more questions. Doing most of your work on the interior of the line, you mostly get to battle against defensive tackles. Who are the top two or three toughest guys that you have had to face in the NFL?
AB: Not named Aaron Donald? Fletcher Cox, Akeim Hicks, Cam Hayward.
15. Who are the biggest trash talkers?
AB: Any member of the Seattle Seahawks!
16. Can you tell us the difference between the college game and the NFL? Obviously the skill level is higher, but is the NFL more technique while college is more passion?
AB: You sort of answered your own question. I think the technique and passion is there on both levels, but the main difference from college to the NFL is that every d-lineman you go against is now a professional and he is one of the best at what he does. In college it is not always like that.
17. Every once in a while we get to hear stories of how rookie o-linemen are required to take the rest of their linemen out to dinner and get stuck with the bill. Did that happen to you? Can you remember the damage?
AB: It did happen to me, but not like one of the horror stories you might see on twitter or anything. I was lucky to have two things going for me in Indy when I was a rookie. I was a part of a really good o-line room that had really good veteran leadership and I had three other fellow rookie offensive lineman, all of which were drafted higher than I was. So, long story short, I ended up with a smaller portion of the bill and I think it was $1,500 or so.
18. Now that we’re talking about food, can you give us a glimpse into what your meal plan looks like during the season? Is it prepared for you by the team and are the calorie requirements through the roof to keep your weight up?
AB: All meals during the season are available at the facility, which is incredibly nice because you know everything you’re eating has been looked over by the nutritionist and you know it’s excellent food. As far as calories go, I would guess I eat anywhere from 4,500-5,000 calories a day. If don’t get at least that much I start to lose weight that I can’t afford to lose.
19. What is your favorite food? Favorite Iowa restaurant? Panchero’s of Casey’s pizza?
AB: My favorite food is a perfectly cooked burger! Cheese, ketchup, mayo…nothing else. My favorite Iowa restaurant is either Short’s Burger or St. Burch Tavern. Most definitely 1,000% Panchero’s. I crave Panch when we are in California.
20. Let’s talk about uniform numbers. You wore #63 at Iowa and are currently #66. Any significance behind any of these numbers?
AB: There weren’t any reasons why I chose those numbers. They were just what I was assigned when I got to each place. I do like how I changed to #66 when I got to LA because to me it signified a little bit of a fresh start.
21. You added a baby girl to your family early this year, congrats to you and your wife and son. How has she changed the family dynamic for you? As a father of three daughters, I wish you good luck!
AB: Thank you!! It’s awesome being a dad again, especially to a little girl. She’s been awesome and if there’s a silver lining to all this pandemic madness, it’s that this has given us all so much time as a family we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. When we had Reed, I was in the midst of trying to make a roster as a late round rookie and I did not get the same amount of time I am now getting with Callie. In a way, I feel like we are making up for some lost time and it’s been amazing.
22. This Q&A came about because you told me that you were currently watching the 40th season of Survivor. Do you have any interest in ever being on a reality show? If quizzed, how many of the Survivor winners could you name?
AB: It’s funny you ask, because as soon as my playing days are over I am submitting an application for Survivor!! I have been watching survivor since the beginning and I’m a huge fan so getting to be on that show would be a dream come true. I feel like I could name quite a few but maybe not all of them!
23. You also told me that you were reading A Clash of Kings from the Game of Thrones series. Are you a nerd? Just kidding! Did you watch all eight seasons of GoT on HBO? I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen one of them, the names seemed too complicated for me to be able to keep track of everyone. Am I missing out?
AB: Haha, I am actually a HUGE nerd. That’s probably the first thing I tell people when they ask one thing that they might not know about me. I originally did not watch GoT, but picked it up around season 6 I think. I was way late to the party but absolutely love the series and couldn’t resist reading the books as well. You are missing out completely! Binge them now!
24. Do you work with any interesting charities that you’d like to talk about. The BHGP readers are always interested in helping a great cause.
AB: I don’t work with any specific charities right now. Once we are done with the football journey, my wife and I will come back to Williamsburg and raise our kids. I say that, because I try and give back to our community as much as I can. I love helping the high school sports teams my wife and I were a part of, and we really like being involved with our church. So that’s what we like to do with our time and effort.
25. I see that your co-owner of Legacy Acres Hunting Club. What can you tell us about that venture?
AB: Yes! I do co-own Legacy Acres Hunting Club with my father-in-law, Curt Ritchie. We bought the club from the previous owner back in 2018 and we have been loving it ever since. Curt has worked there for over 20 years and it’s been his dream come true to be able to say he now co-owns it. We have 600 acres for customers to come out and upland bird hunt along with a sporting clays trap house. We have really tried to create a place where people can come and create memories with their friends and families because that’s what Curt and I remember most about our hunting experiences. It’s been really fun to watch how we have grown over the last couple seasons and I am very excited that I have something that I am passionate about to come back to after my football days are over. If anyone wants to check us out, our website is www.legacyacreshuntingclub.com.
Thank you so much to Austin Blythe for taking the time to answer these questions for us. Blythe and Jake Gervase are the former Hawkeyes on the Los Angeles Ram’s active roster. Starting tonight, we’ll see if any other Iowa players will be joining them once the season is resumed. Best of luck this season and we’ll be watching and reporting. Go Hawks!