Rutgers offensive line hopes to mirror passion of assistant coach
The offensive line unit of the Rutgers football team stood in the corner of a practice field snuggled in between the baseball and softball fields located on the Livingston campus of the University on a warm summer morning this August.
The first training camp under new head coach Chris Ash had begun a few days prior and there was a buzz in the air, an electricity as the team worked to impress the coaching staff and take another step further to climbing out of the bottom of the Big Ten.
With helmets and pads strapped on after months of conditioning work, the linemen collided as they worked through the rust of the offseason.
But the loudest among the grunts and the helmet clashes of one of the most experienced position groups on the team won’t be strapping up for the season opener in Seattle against Washington on September 3 — he’ll be yelling instructions from the sideline.
Offensive line coach A.J. Blazek, one of the assistants chosen to usher in the Ash era at Rutgers, is among the most involved of his colleagues on the practice field, constantly in the action and in the trenches with his players.
“He actually loses a couple pounds at practice, 10 or 11 pounds at practice because he runs as much as us,” said sophomore Tariq Cole of his new position coach.
The Long Beach, New York, native has perhaps been the biggest beneficiary of Blazek’s hands-on coaching style.
He currently leads the depth chart as the starting left tackle while the Scarlet Knights continue to learn a new offense — a spread far different to the pro-style they’ve been relearning every year with seven different offensive coordinators over the past eight seasons.
Cole has said he prefers the spread because of its simplicity and his learning of it was helped by Blazek’s approach to teaching it.
“To have somebody that could actually do the drills that we do is really an impact on us because he shows us what to do instead of just telling us,” he said. “For me, I’m a visual learner, so to have that makes it even better.”
Rutgers is the fourth stop in the Wichita, Kansas, native’s coaching career.
After finishing his college career as a center at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz — who is entering his 17th season in Iowa City this year, making him the longest tenured head coach in the Big Ten — Blazek played in the Arena Football League as a member of the Chicago Rush for two seasons.
Known to be a spirited player, he continues to bring that attitude to the football field as a coach, hoping to see the characteristics rub off on his players.
“I want a guy that’s got some juice, some personality, is excited to take the field,” he said. “I want some personality, I don’t want a door going out there, doing their job and going home.”
His energy hasn't gone unnoticed.
“He’s a guy that makes you want to play for him with how passionate he is,” said junior guard Dorian Miller. “He’s able to lay it all out there. You can’t do anything but respect that, so his passion and his energy is carried over to our o-line and helped us become a lot more physical consistently.”
Passion could only take teams so far — most coaches could amp up their players — but Blazek has pedigree to back up his instructions.
Following his playing career, he returned to Iowa City to begin his coaching career, spending four seasons in Iowa under Ferentz — the first as a student assistant, the other three as a graduate assistant.
He went on to make stops in his home state at Division II Fort Hayes State, where he pulled double duty as the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, before heading to fellow Division II program Winona State with the same responsibilities, only this time as a co-offensive coordinator.
He would make the jump to Division I soon after at FCS program Western Illinois, but not before earning “Assistant Coach of the Year” honors from the American Coaches Football Association for his work at Winona in 2012.
Blazek proved the award wasn’t a fluke in his first year in Macomb, where he oversaw an offensive line that improved 30 spots nationally in sacks allowed in his first year.
He hopes to do the same in his first season with the Knights, a team which tied with Penn State for most sacks allowed in conference play with 24 in eight games in 2015.
The first test of how likely the line is to lower that number is a few weeks away, but if the players speaking on his behalf are anything to go by, the signs point in a positive direction.
“It’s great because you know he knows. You know with a coach like coach Blazek who cares that much, you know he’s gonna find the right way to do it,” said fifth-year senior guard Chris Muller, the creator of #BigFellaMove, a Twitter movement Blazek has participated in. “He really cares about each individual on the team and each individual on the offensive line. He’s going to push each of us to the best of our ability and see how far we got and he’s going to make this offensive line great."