Outland Trophy history: Offensive tackle Brandon Scherff, Iowa, 2014 recipient

This is the ninth in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006 to 2020.  From 1946 to 2005, the first 60 Outland Trophy winners were profiled in the book 60 Years of the Outland Trophy by Gene Duffey. In celebration of the Outland Trophy’s 75th Anniversary we are catching up with the last 15 recipients.

(OL Brandon Scherff was selected fifth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Washington Football Team. The unanimous All-American in college at offensive tackle has been an outstanding guard in the NFL and a four-time Pro Bowler. He has started 78 games for Washington.)

                                               Gene Duffey, Author

Ask a football coach what makes a good offensive lineman and he will inevitably say “good feet” as part of his response.

What exactly are good feet? And how do you get them?

Brandon Scherff, the 2014 Outland winner from Iowa, developed his feet by playing other sports, and other positions, before landing at offensive left tackle his last three years in Iowa City.

“You have to move your feet fast and well,” said Scherff. “Every (sport) you play helps.”

Scherff’s older brother, Justin, was a good tennis player and went on to play at Central College, a Division III school in Pella, Iowa. Brandon played tennis through his freshman year of high school in Denison, Iowa, before time restraints made him give up the sport.

“If he would have stayed with tennis his sophomore year, he would have been our No. 1 player,” Denison football coach Dave Wiebers told Darren Miller of Hawkeyesports.com.

Scherff averaged a double-double in basketball, leading Denison to back-to-back 17-6 records his junior and senior years. Footwork is especially important when you are playing on the block in basketball. He also excelled in track, competing in the shot put and discus.

Reese Morgan, an Iowa assistant, first spotted Scherff throwing the shot as a sophomore. Scherff won the state meet. Of course, his feet were an important factor for both events.

“He didn’t have the best technique, but he had a strong will,” said Morgan.

Scherff split his spring between track and baseball, where he pitched and played first base. He filled out a few questionnaires for Major League clubs but was never drafted.

Brandon Scherff of Iowa with his 2014 Outland Trophy.

The most important aspect of Scherff developing quick feet was the position he played before moving to the offensive line. He started out in flag football in the fourth grade as a quarterback and stayed there all the way into his junior year of high school. He needed good feet for that position because he was a big quarterback.

He liked playing quarterback. He had competed in Punt, Pass and Kick competitions as a kid. But Scherff finally outgrew the position, somewhere around 280 pounds, and moved to tight end.

“It was my idea,” he said of the position change. “We had a pretty good quarterback behind me. I loved (tight end) once I put my hand in the dirt. I came back to the huddle and said, ‘This is fun.’ I love hitting people.”

Scherff was smart enough to realize his future in football meant playing on the offensive line. He shifted there for his senior year at Denison, though he did play some defensive tackle, too.

Iowa, Iowa State and Nebraska all wanted Scherff. The Cornhuskers, who have won nine Outlands (eight different players), have a great tradition for offensive linemen.

So did Iowa.

“As soon as Iowa offered me, I knew I was going there,” said Scherff. “I wanted to be part of that tradition (of offensive linemen) there.”

Scherff became the Hawkeyes’ fourth Outland winner, following Calvin Jones (1955), Alex Karras (1957) and Robert Gallery (2003).

The Iowa coaches impressed Scherff and his family from the start. Brandon was a three-star recruit, but the Hawkeyes showed him just as much interest in him as the big-name prospects.

“Some schools only spent time with the four-and five-star recruits,” he said. “(Coach) Kirk Ferentz knew everybody’s name, my parents and my sisters. They weren’t trying to pitch anything.”

Both his sisters were also athletes, Kristin played soccer and volleyball and Megan competed in volleyball and track. His father, Bob, had played center on the football team in high school and went on to work as supervisor of the transportation system for the Denison school district. His mother, Cindy, taught fifth grade.

Iowa redshirted Scherff his first year. “I was fine with that,” he said. “I had only played on the offensive line for one year. I learned a lot that year (redshirting).”

He learned it the hard way. Scherff had to block, or at least try to block, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, an All-American, in practice. Scherff knew he wasn’t in Denison anymore.         

“They ran me into the dirt every day in practice,” he said. “During two-a-days, you’re beat after one practice. ‘We have to do it again?’”

But Ferentz realized right away he had something special in Scherff.

“I felt (he would become a great player) that first year,” said Ferentz. “You could see the attitude. Most guys have a lot to learn on the offensive line. He was very eager to learn. We decided before the start of the season to redshirt him. Brandon agreed. One good thing about linemen is they get the big picture.”

The coaches noticed his athleticism. “In practice he could catch a punt better than anyone on our team,” said Morgan.

Iowa went 8-5 in 2010, Scherff’s redshirt season, beating Missouri in the Insight Bowl. He made his first start at left guard in the eighth game of the 2011 season at Minnesota.

The Golden Gophers rallied to beat Iowa, 22-21. But the Hawkeyes gained 446 yards in total offense. Somebody must have been blocking.

 “I was nervous before the game,” said Scherff. “People told me to relax. I felt like I played all right.”

Iowa beat No. 13 Michigan, 24-16, the following week with Scherff in the starting lineup.

The Hawkeyes moved Scherff to the key position at left tackle for the start of his sophomore season. He said it was an easy transition from guard.

“He morphed right in front of our eyes,” said Ferentz.

Quiet off the field, Scherff displayed a fierceness on it. “There’s an energy, enthusiasm, intensity about him,” said Ferentz. “His actions are pretty demonstrative on the field once the ball is snapped. He’s very aggressive on the field. But not a talker, not in your face.”

“You have to be two different guys,” Scherff said to Rick Brown of the Des Moines Register. “On the field you have to be nasty and physical, and off the field you can be the nicest guy you want to be. I fit the mold of both. I want to be known as a physical player and I want people to be afraid of me (on the field). When they put on film of me, hopefully they don’t want to play (me).”

By his sophomore season it was Scherff who was working over the defensive linemen in practice.

“I’ve got to come focused every day,” defensive end Drew Ott told Scott Dochterman, then of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “Otherwise, I will be on my back all the time. He can flatten you at any place. There are no plays off when you’re going against him.”

Scherff started the first seven games his sophomore year before suffering a broken fibula and dislocated ankle against Penn State. “It was a reverse play,” he said. “I tried to influence the linebacker. Two people fell on me from behind.”

He sat out the last five games of the season. Iowa lost all five.

The normal doubts began creeping into Scherff’s mind. Would I play again? How good would I be? He turned his attention to rehabbing and working even harder in the weight room.

Scherff didn’t lift weights much in high school. He didn’t have time with all the sports he played. In the summers, he mowed lawns. The injury helped him get much stronger.

“He can squat a house,” Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis told Mike Hlas of the Gazette. “He’s the face of Iowa football.”

“He’s not just a weight room freak, he’s a football freak,” added Mark Weisman, Iowa’s leading rusher in 2014.

Scherff returned to help Iowa plow through an 8-5 season his junior year, beating Michigan and Nebraska in back-to-back games to end the regular season, the highlights of his days at Iowa. The Hawkeyes rallied from a 14-point deficit to clip Michigan, 24-21, at home, then beat 8-3 Nebraska, 38-17, in Lincoln. “Nobody gave us a shot in those games,” he said proudly.

Logically, Scherff could have left Iowa after his junior year. People projected him as a first-round draft choice. Instead, he decided to return to Iowa City for his senior season.

“I wanted the opportunity to work with Kirk and (offensive line coach) Brian Ferentz for another year,” he said. “I wanted to learn to play smarter and faster and win the Big 10. It didn’t happen.”

“It’s so refreshing,” Kirk Ferentz said of Scherff’s decision. “In this day and age, it’s unusual. Brandon would have been a first-round draft choice. Robert Gallery also stayed for a fifth year.”

“He plays football the game it’s supposed to be played,” Brian Ferentz  told Brown. “He does everything right.”

Scherff’s senior season at Iowa didn’t go as he had hoped. He suffered a knee injury in the second game against Ball State. Ferentz said he would not have been surprised if Scherff missed a month. “That’s just not the way he is,” said Ferentz.

The tackle underwent surgery that Monday to repair his meniscus and played the following Saturday against rival Iowa State.

Iowa finished 7-6, losing four of its last five games, including a loss to  Tennessee in a bowl game. The Hawkeyes averaged 31 points and 433 yards of total offense a game. But five times they gave up 29 or more points in a game.

“You can’t look at it like that,” said Scherff. “You have to look at the film and ask why (you lost). There’s always something you can do better. We’d be ahead and give it up. We didn’t play the full 60 minutes. It’s your senior year. You don’t want to go out like that.”

Scherff did leave his mark at Iowa in addition to winning the Outland Trophy.

“He’s really a throwback because he’s not into the media, he’s not into video games, he’s not about himself,” Morgan said.

Morgan already had a pretty good idea what an Outland Trophy winner should be. In high school, he coached Chad Hennings, the 1987 winner from Air Force.

“Both come from small towns in Iowa, with outstanding families,” said Morgan. “They have the work ethic and are used to doing things the right way. Both are very passionate about the weight room. They are very humble. with good core values.”

When Scherff needed to escape from football he went hunting or fishing. He’ would get up in time to be in a treestand 45 minutes before daylight. Talk about dedicated. Some college students are returning from an evening of partying about that time. Scherff would hunt deer, turkey and pheasant. He fished with his college teammates for bass, trout and catfish.

The modest Scherff never considered himself a candidate for the Outland Trophy.

“It was a great experience,” he said of going to Orlando for the announcement on the Home Depot College Football Awards. “I never thought I’d be down there. Just to touch the trophy was incredible.”

To keep it was even better.