IOWA CITY, Iowa — The kid couldn’t appear anymore out of place.
There was the Arizona baseball hat. All it did was upset the Iowa coaches.
The shirt and pants weren’t memorable. The cowboy boots were. This wasn’t the look of a recruit making a visit to the Hawkeyes football facility.
It was a one-of-a-kind fashion statement, but one the coaching staff saw right through. It was as if the kid wanted attention on that hat.
“Like we would never look at his shoes to figure out that he’s really not 6-4,” coach Kirk Ferentz would recall 17 years later. “One of those deals.”
It would be a few years before the phrase prototypical Iowa offensive lineman would be uttered, but he wouldn’t fit it. The kid wasn’t big enough. The kid didn’t seem a match.
First impressions aren’t always the best. That’s an understatement in this case. The kid would only go on to be an All-Big Ten center. He’d spend time with Iowa as a player and a coach, soaking up all he could from Ferentz and other staff members.
It created a desire to coach. The kid would lean on the lessons he learned in Iowa City at every coaching stop along the way. It would help him rise all the way to the Big Ten.
A.J. Blazek didn’t know it, but the life of that kid in the cowboy boots would be altered the second he made the visit before signing in 1999.
“One hundred percent of everything I am doing right now is from Iowa,” Blazek said. “The state. The school. The players that I played with. I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have right now without it.”
And, now, he must use it against his alma mater when Rutgers faces Iowa on Saturday.
• • •
The kid was a junior college prospect. He was listed at 6-foot-2, 280 pounds at Butler Community College. He likely wasn’t either.
The scouting report wasn’t stellar. Not athletic. Undersized. Those are Blazek’s own words
Ferentz didn’t want to play him. He preferred to redshirt Blazek. Injuries wouldn’t allow it to happen.
So the Hawkeyes went about molding Blazek into something they could use. The process of breaking in a wild stallion was likely easier. Blazek was emotional and intense. He was all fury on the football field.
“I played like my hair was on fire,” Blazek said.
He needed to harness and control his energy. He also needed to learn technique and how to read a defense. Most of all, he needed to learn poise.
In stepped former Iowa coach Joe Philbin. He would be tasked with taming the wild beast.
“He helped me calm down and see the game a little bit differently and more of the intellectual side of the game,” Blazek said. “It helped turn me on to the coaching side as much as anything.”
Back then there was no way to know this was the foundation of a five-stop, 15-year coaching career. He was just a kid learning how to read a defense and change blocking schemes so he could get on the field.
Blazek would become an All-Big Ten center and co-captain in 2000 by squeezing all he could out of his ability.
“What a spirited player he was, just all — you talk about attitude, unbelievable attitude,” Ferentz said.
• • •
The kid was probably born to coach. His father and grandfather both did it.
Yet, when he decided to break into the profession in 2001 he went back to the mentors who molded him. Iowa line coach Reese Morgan. Strength coach Chris Doyle. Ferentz. Especially Ferentz, who he still believes is the best offensive line coach in the country.
The lessons he would learn as a player and as a student and graduate assistant about the line would make their way to the offensive lineman Blazek coaches at Rutgers today.
But before he could get back to the offensive line he needed to survive the secondary. He was tasked with working with defensive backs in his first year.
Blazek knew nothing about the position. While breaking down film fellow coaches would also break down the basic concepts of the passing game. Blazek learned about the receiving tree and route concepts. It opened his eyes to a different part of the game.
“The greatest year of coaching football I ever had,” Blazek said. “The amount of football I learned that year was off the charts.”
His coaching education would continue at Kinnick Stadium through 2004. He’d work with seven NFL draft picks, including No. 2 overall selection Robert Gallery.
By 2005 he was ready to branch out. He moved to Fort Hays State (Kan.) as the offensive coordinator/offensive line coach, equipped to pass on what he learned at Iowa to his players.
Details would be important. He would focus on technique, especially footwork. Ensuring players understood the why of everything would be vital. Watching Ken O’Keefe and Philbin coach convinced him kids learned faster and would play better if they understood the reason behind what was being taught.
His on-field enthusiasm from his playing days would carry over, too. It’s still there at Rutgers.
Everything he learned wouldn’t matter if he couldn’t overcome one obstacle. Why would a player listen to someone only a few years his senior?
Blazek went into WWID mode. What would Iowa do? He sold himself. He would demand plenty, but he wouldn’t cuss or call his players names.
He showed them he cared. Now, he brings his players around his family so they can witness another side of him. Then, he peppers players with questions.
How was class? How is your mom? Are you doing all right?
“You got to get your room to buy in,” Blazek said. “We could have the most or the least talented group, and if they don’t believe in what we are teaching or what we are doing philosophically it is going to be a bust.”
It worked. Blazek coached five all-conference offensive lineman at Fort Hays State in three years. He moved on to Winona State (Minn.) in 2009 and produced five all-conference players in four years.
“He will do anything for his guys and his guys really understand that he cares about them and as a result kids at his position group really play hard,” said South Dakota State coach Bob Nielson, who would coach with Blazek at Western Illinois.
Nielson noticed as much at Minnesota-Duluth when his teams would play Winona State. He liked the way Blazek’s offensive line played. He knew about Blazek’s Iowa connections. The Hawkeyes past, plus the way Blazek taught zone-blocking schemes and his personality, made Nielson bring on Blazek as the Western Illinois offensive line coach in 2013.
“One of the reasons I hired him is because he was like the Iowa guys,” Nielson said.
An offensive lineman would earn all-conference honors in each of Blazek’s three seasons at Western Illinois. It would help him land on the Rutgers staff of Iowa native Chris Ash. It’s Blazek’s task to turn a group with three returning starters that averaged 169.9 rushing yards last season into the team’s strength.
It’s a lot like Fort Hays. He must get the players to trust him. It’s just the meeting room where it all happens is a lot nicer.
“Everywhere I’ve gone that’s been the fun piece,” Blazek said.
• • •
The kid is now a mentor. It started right away with Jacob Judd. Blazek fell for the high schooler on the highlight tape who blocked to the end of the play.
It didn’t matter that Judd was small, his technique was lacking or that most of his offers were from junior colleges. Blazek saw a kid who finished blocks. That was all he needed to see. Blazek searched the country for physical players with a work ethic.
Blazek told Judd he would move from offensive tackle to center. He said he would teach Judd everything he needed to be great.
He started by preparing Judd for the coach he’d get. Blazek will rip a guy a new one and hug him two seconds later. It can be a shock. Blazek wants players ready for the experience.
“I’ve never had a coach like that before and now I couldn’t have it any other way,” Judd said. “He makes you a better player by being intense and knowing that he cares about you behind all that.”
One undersized center taught another how to read a defense. The pointers Philbin passed on to Blazek were handed down to Judd. Technique was driven home. Hand placement and footwork were a constant topic. Blazek would break down the intricacies of offensive line play for Judd like he did in this USA Football video.
Those around Blazek say he coaches to get the most he can out of every player. He’s doing the same thing as a coach as he did when he wore a uniform. Blazek admits as much when confronted with the idea.
It worked for him. It worked for Judd in their three years together. Judd went from unknown recruit to second-team all-conference center by his redshirt sophomore season.
“If you are coached by A.J. Blazek you are going to be a great football player based on the fact he is going to bring it out of you,” Judd said. “He is going to bring the football player out of you that you didn’t think was there.”
• • •
The kid now finds himself in a tough spot. It’s weird going against Iowa. So many of the faces that taught Blazek are still there.
He’ll try to use the Hawkeyes way to try to take down his alma mater. Part of it doesn’t feel right. His heart now bleeds scarlet, but his soul is tinted gold and black.
He wants to impress his mentors. They raised him as a football coach. This is a chance to show he’s their peer, but at their expense.
The mixed feelings around the game are why Blazek doesn’t plan to reach out to the Iowa staff this week. He’ll see them before the game. They’ll see him during the game. They’ll hug and chat afterwards.
They’ll likely reminisce about about Blazek’s days at Iowa and all he learned as a Hawkeye.
And maybe even the one thing he sure as heck didn’t pick up at Iowa.
“That (Arizona) hat I can’t explain,” Ferentz said. “I continue to tease him about that.”