Finally AJ Blazek has come back home.
The newly-hired Rutgers offensive line coach spent the last decade as a teacher in the trenches but has not been in his native Big Ten since the 2004 season as a graduate assistant with Iowa.
Rutgers coach Chris Ash hired multiple former Big Ten stars to his coaching staff, and Blazek is happy to be back in the conference.
“I’ll tell you what, I’m excited to be back because this is me,” Blazek said on his return to the Big Ten. “It’s an exciting brand of offensive linemen and I can’t wait to get to work with these guys to get them playing their best every week.”
Blazek knows about the path to the Big Ten when he transitioned from a junior college All-American to an Iowa football team captain. He passes on those lessons starting Tuesday when players formally return for offseason workouts and meetings.
“In our first meeting, they’re going to see some things they’ve done really well,” Blazek said. “I think this is a good group but we don’t have a ton of depth. That’s one place where I think we need to get better.
“…It’s hard in one year to be an All-American or an all-star but I think we’ve got a guy or two that could be an All Big Ten offensive lineman. I really do. There are seniors coming up, the inside guys are strong.”
Blazek has three ideas to pass on to a talented offensive line group come next week. Blazek philosophically focuses on mental toughness, versatility and violence.
Rutgers offensive linemen struggled against bigger defenses in 2015 and that changes under Blazek, he said. It starts in the weight room.
“They’ll know right away that it’s going to be tough,” Blazek said. “It’s going to be physically demanding. … When you watch Ohio State, Iowa, Florida, the places that have great strength programs, that’s what it’s from. It’s not just weights and lifting and conditioning. It’s not just how you’re training. It’s mental conditioning. It’s going to be different than what they’ve seen.”
The 2015 Rutgers offensive line showcased versatility on the interior but Blazek takes it to the next level pending matchups.
“Left tackle, right tackle, I’ve never worried much about that,” Blazek said. “I know you have to be more athletic on the edge because of the guys you go against. If you’re our best offensive lineman and their best player is the nose guard, then you might play guard that week. I’m not afraid to move guys around.”
“My philosophy is that you bring guys in as a freshman and they play one side, one position. Come spring ball, they’re starting to flip sides. The more versatile a player is, the more he’s going to play here. I want a starter to be our backup center. … The sixth-best lineman is going in.”
When it comes to a strong offensive line, Blazek focuses on the fight and not simply the size of his warriors.
“From a size standpoint, the No. 1 thing is you’ve got to be physically violent,” he said. “For those three hours on Saturday, that has to be what your core is. From there, you have to have some athleticism and then the third one is length and size. [Size] is important but it’s not our most important [quality].”
Blazek offered multiple prospects during his first week on the job. After he built relationships at Western Illinois with talented underclassmen, he has Rutgers involved with linemen like Trystan Castillo and Dylan Powell.
“I want guys that play multiple sports,” Blazek said on his recruiting philosophy. “Their No. 1 question should be what is Kenny Parker all about, our strength coach? If that’s what they’re excited about, then they’re going to come here and be pretty good. … [We want] what is inside that guy’s brain, that guy’s heart, how he’s wired. That’s the part in recruiting that a lot of people miss. They’ll chase a start, they’ll chase a height, they’ll chase a weight, they’ll chase a bench press but they overlook.”