JACKSONVILLE – Right guard Ben Bartch, a fourth-round selection by the Jaguars in the 2020 NFL Draft, played collegiately at Division III St. John's (Minnesota) University. He transitioned from a little-recruited high school player to a tight end to an offensive lineman who earned invitations to the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine, gaining more than 80 pounds during his final collegiate seasons – with the weight gain in part because of daily smoothies that included seven scrambled eggs, cottage cheese, grits, peanut butter, a banana and Gatorade. He recently joined senior writer John Oehser to talk about his transition from small-college football to the NFL, his confidence entering the NFL – and yes, his nickname, "The Smoothie King." Here's the O-Zone Conversation with Bartch:
Question: COVID-19 has made this an unusual time for everyone, including NFL rookies. You were drafted about a month ago and have met with teammates and coaches only by video conference. I would ask if this felt strange, but I suppose as a rookie it's hard to know what's strange and what's not.
Answer: This is all I've known so far for my rookie experience in the first couple of weeks. I'm just rolling with the punches, really.
Q: You've had a little time to get to know offensive-line mates and coaches – at least virtually. Any sense for that yet?
A: I've really enjoyed getting to know them and talking to them over the computer. I can tell it's going to be good. It's going to be a good setup.
Q: This was quite a journey from Division III to the highest level of football. Has it sunk in? Does it feel real?
A: I think it has sunk in. Playing college football and having a terrific experience, then gearing your mind toward playing further professionally over the last couple of years … that's kind of prepared me, I think. I'm definitely excited, though. I don't think that goes away. I'm like a kid in a candy store, I think. You get to play football and continue playing; that's a pretty special thing.
Q: You played high school football in McMinnville, Oregon, then played collegiately in Minnesota. How did that happen? That's quite a path.
A: My father was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother has Indiana and Wisconsin roots. We would spend a lot of time there (in Minnesota) in the summers; we would go back to visit family. I was pretty familiar with the area, so when I didn't get any offers in Oregon I figured why not make a little recruiting trip with a rental car with my mom and go visit some of these schools that have shown interest in me? I just kind of gave it a chance and was blown away by it more and more. It really has been a second home for me.
Q: So, this wasn't your standard take-five-visits-to-the-state-college process?
A: (Laughing) I had a recruiting letter that I made, a word document: "Show yourself in a very presentable way with a collared shirt." It was a little unorthodox compared to some of the other paths, but probably more enjoyable and exciting in some ways.
Q: Did getting there in that way, having to work for it, shape you?
A: Having that growth mindset in most aspects of life is really beneficial. I guess nothing was ever given to me, so for me it was always I had nothing to lose so you might as well give it everything and work really hard.
Q: Looking at your background: Oregon, then Minnesota. You're getting into a seriously different weather situation in Jacksonville, aren't you?
A: (Laughing) One hundred percent. It's an aggressive cold in Minnesota. It gets inside your body and just assaults you. As aggressive and as harsh as the winters are in Minnesota, which they are, ultimately we'll acclimate. We're humans. We're resilient. We'll be all right, I think.
Q: People think of St. John's as small because it's Division III. But it's a big-time Division III program, so I assume you feel more ready for this transition than perhaps some people might expect.
A: I definitely think you're right that St. John's is a little different than other Division III programs. There's a huge winning history and players have access – for Division III – to some of the best people and resources. The coaching staff was really helpful and knowledgeable through the whole process, so I didn't necessarily feel ill-prepared.
Q: When did you first get an idea the NFL was possible for you?
A: The kind of happened junior year. That's when I kind of talked about it with my coaches. That's when my focus really geared up. We had a wide receiver at St. John's, a terrific player named Evan Clark. I was a sophomore tight end and Evan was a senior. We had some NFL scouts coming through to watch practices. I remember telling one of my tight end teammates, 'Dude, wouldn't that be so cool if we got noticed? That would be awesome' … at the time thinking I'd be playing tight end. One of the scouts kind of mentioned to one of the coaches that if 87 (Bartch) played tackle … he's got pretty good feet; he could play tackle. That kind of provoked some thought about it. We have some NFL experience on our coaching staff, so …
Q: So, when they speak, you listen …
Q: I read an article that said you weren't initially big on the idea of moving to tight end.
A: That was inaccurate reporting. I did read that article as well and kind of laughed with my coach about it. I wasn't necessarily resistant. It's kind of a running joke: A wide receiver drops the ball or isn't fast enough … it's like, 'Oh, we're going to move you to tight end pretty soon.' If you're a tight end and you keep dropping balls it's, 'Oh, we're going to have switch those numbers around.' That was the running joke when I was an underclassman if I made an error or dropped the ball. Ultimately, I was on board (with moving to offensive line) for sure.
Q: You had a big week at the Senior Bowl. I'm fascinated by what your mindset must have been entering that week. It's an important event for many prospects, but it's enormous – with a lot of pressure – for a Division III player.
A: I prepared myself with the mindset of, "I'm either going to blow it or I'm going to play amazing and I'm going to kill it." Ultimately, there's no sense in ruminating over the doubts or the possibilities of failure. So, just give it hell and play like the reason you got the invite in the first place. When you have that mindset of confidence that you belong and you don't care, I think you just play football and you perform well.
Q: So, no real nerves?
A: Oh, there's nerves. Yeah.
Q: That's a pretty mature mindset. Where does that come from?
A: I think it's a culmination of my parents, and how terrific and incredible they are, and what they've instilled into me. And on top of that: my coaching staff, my strength coach. They're very down-to-earth people. They're terrific coaches. I'm a psychology major for undergrad, so I definitely have always had an interest in sports psychology, mental-skills training and all of that kind of stuff. I think that is the culmination of all those things and being interested in how to better yourself and research those things and the mindsets.
Q: I didn't want to lead with the smoothie story. I know you've talked about it a million times. But are you tired of it? Do you embrace it? Where are you at with it?
A: I'm indifferent, personally. To me, it was just part of the journey. My friends all joke around now: "Smoothie King!!! What's up, man?" That was just a small sliver of the other crazy things that went on in my journey playing up here.
Q: The smoothie story has been well-documented, and the weight gain certainly was key to you developing into an NFL prospect. Was there a key to that process beyond the weight gain?
A: First off, risk-taking. That was a risk for me. You're switching positions to something you've never played and you don't really know what you're doing right away. To me, that's where the faith piece comes in, having a rock and having a good support group of family as well. Secondly, I think dedication to your craft and waking up every day with a goal: Did I get better than yesterday? Not worrying about tomorrow, necessarily, but did I get any better than I did yesterday? When you have a plan and you're prepared, I think the sky's the limit. If you allow yourself and don't put limits on yourself, I don't see any reason why anyone can't achieve something like that.
Q: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you're confident going into this. I'm not saying "cocky," but you have a belief that you're ready to make this jump.
A: I understand that there are a lot of things I don't know and that I'm going to have many of those Welcome-to-the-NFL-Rookie moments. I don't think that I know everything about this, but I do know the things that have gotten me here to this point. I can't control the future. I can just control how I react. That's where the confidence is, not that I'm better than anyone else.
Q: You sound ready for things to get started …
A: (Laughing) I am perky. I am excited. I am ready. I am yearning to get down there and get to work. I've been going at it with our meetings and our film and our playbook study. But I'm very excited.