2021 Outland Trophy watch list announced Reply

DALLAS — The Football Writers Association of America has announced the preseason watch list for the 2021 Outland Trophy, recognizing 80 returning standout interior linemen representing all 10 Division I FBS conferences and independents. The 2021 season continues a celebration of the award’s 75th anniversary and the watch list presents a talented field of players to accompany three returning FWAA All-Americans.

The recipient of the 2021 Outland Trophy will be announced on The Home Depot College Football Awards, live on ESPN in December. The official presentation to the winner will be made at the Outland Trophy Awards Dinner sponsored by Werner Enterprises and produced by the Greater Omaha Sports Committee in Omaha, Neb., on Jan. 12, 2022.

Kenyon Green, a 2020 Outland semifinalist as a first-team FWAA All-American offensive guard at Texas A&M last year, tops the list as the only first-team interior lineman to return. The Aggies, who also have defensive tackle McKinnley Jackson on the list, are one of 18 teams to have at least two players on the watch list. One other returning All-American, Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum highlights the top returning interior linemen. Linderbaum was a second-team selection a year ago.

Five schools boast three selections each, including two of last year’s College Football Playoff qualifiers in Clemson and Ohio State. Two of Clemson’s are defensive tackles, Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis, along with offensive tackle Jordan McFadden, are touted. Ohio State’s offensive line is bolstered by tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere and its defense features tackle Haskell Garrett.

Boston College, which pairs with Clemson to give the Atlantic Coast Conference six of its national-best 14 players, has center Alec Lindstrom in between guard Zion Johnson and offensive tackle Tyler Vrabel. Oklahoma’s high-powered offense has guards Tyrese Robinson and Marquis Hayes and a third member, Perrion Winfrey at defensive tackle. Georgia is the only SEC school with a trio of players – guards Jamaree Salyer and Justin Shaffer, and defensive tackle Jordan Davis.

After the ACC, the Big Ten boasts 13 selections spread among nine different schools and the SEC has 11 total from seven schools. Defending national champion Alabama is represented by a tackle on each side of the ball, Evan Neal on offense and Phidarian Mathis on defense. Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood won the 2020 Outland Trophy before departing to the NFL as the 17th overall selection in the draft by the Las Vegas Raiders.

Two members of last season’s FWAA Freshman All-America team, Northwestern offensive tackle Peter Skoronski and Tulsa offensive tackle Tyler Smith, are also on the watch list, which includes 26 offensive tackles, 26 guards, 16 centers and 13 defensive tackles.

2021 OUTLAND TROPHY PRESEASON WATCH LIST (80)

G Henry Bainivalu, WashingtonC Alec Lindstrom, Boston College
OT Matthew Bedford, IndianaDT Jermayne Lole, Arizona State
G Curtis Blackwell, Ball StateOT Vederian Lowe, Illinois
C Nick Brahms, AuburnOT Abe Lucas, Washington State
DT Bryan Bresee, ClemsonG Cain Madden, Notre Dame
DT C.J. Brewer, Coastal CarolinaDT Phidarian Mathis, Alabama
OT Nick Broeker, Ole MissOT Jordan McFadden, Clemson
G Logan Bruss, WisconsinC Mike Miranda, Penn State
OT Spencer Burford, UTSAOT Thayer Munford, Ohio State
C Mike Caliendo, Western MichiganOT Evan Neal, Alabama
G Trey Carter, Coastal CarolinaOT Zion Nelson, Miami
DT Will Choloh, TroyC Colin Newell, Iowa State
DT Nolan Cockrill, ArmyG Conner Olson, Minnesota
C Keegan Cryder, WyomingG Dylan Parham, Memphis
DT Jordan Davis, GeorgiaG Jarrett Patterson, Notre Dame
DT Tyler Davis, ClemsonOT Nicholas Petit-Frere, Ohio State
C Dawson Deaton, Texas TechOT Colby Ragland, UAB
G Corey Dublin, TulaneG Tyrese Robinson, Oklahoma
G Ikem Ekwonu, N.C. StateOT Walter Rouse, Stanford
C Nathan Eldridge, Oregon StateG Jamaree Salyer, Georgia
C James Empey, BYUG Cole Schneider, UCF
G Joshua Ezeudu, North CarolinaG Derek Schweiger, Iowa State
C Alex Forsyth, OregonG Justin Shaffer, Georgia
OT Jake Fuzak, BuffaloG Josh Sills, Oklahoma State
DT Haskell Garrett, Ohio StateOT Peter Skoronski, Northwestern
C Grant Gibson, N.C. StateOT Tyler Smith, Tulsa
G Shamarious Gilmore, Georgia StateOT Jack Snyder, San Jose State
OT Kenyon Green, Texas A&MG Jake Stetz, Boise State
C Bryce Harris, ToledoDT Dante Stills, West Virginia
G Marquis Hayes, OklahomaOT Jaylon Thomas, SMU
C Brock Hoffman, Virginia TechOT Zachary Thomas, San Diego State
OT Jarrett Horst, Michigan StateOT Zach Tom, Wake Forest
C Baer Hunter, App StateG O’Cyrus Torrence, Louisiana
G Ed Ingram, LSUDT Raymond Vohasek, North Carolina
DT McKinnley Jackson, Texas A&MOT Tyler Vrabel, Boston College
G Zion Johnson, Boston CollegeOT Rasheed Walker, Penn State
OT Darian Kinnard, KentuckyOT Sidney Wells, UAB
OT Jaxson Kirkland, WashingtonC Dohnovan West, Arizona State
C Doug Kramer, IllinoisOT Jarrid Williams, Miami
C Tyler Linderbaum, IowaDT Perrion Winfrey, Oklahoma

By conference: ACC 14, Big Ten 13, SEC 11, Big 12 8, Pac-12 8, Sun Belt 6, American Athletic 5, Independents 4, Mid-American 4, Mountain West 4, Conference USA 3.

By position: Offensive Tackles 27, Offensive Guards 25, Centers 16, Defensive Tackles 13.

Tackles, guards and centers are eligible for consideration; Candidates may be added or removed during the season

The Outland Trophy winner is chosen from three finalists who are a part of the annual FWAA All-America Team. The FWAA All-America Committee, after voting input from the entire membership, selects a 26-man first team and eventually the three Outland finalists. Committee members, then by individual ballot, select the winner. Only interior linemen on offense or defense are eligible for the award; ends are not eligible.

The Outland Trophy, celebrating 75 years since its founding, is the third-oldest major college football award. Created in 1946 when Dr. John Outland presented the FWAA with a financial contribution to initiate the award, the Outland Trophy has been given to the best interior lineman in college football ever since. Dr. Outland, an All-American at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1890s, eventually took up practice in Kansas City, Mo. An avid outdoorsman, Dr. Outland believed linemen did not get the credit they deserved and wanted an award to recognize them.

The Outland Trophy is a member of the National College Football Awards Association (NCFAA), which encompasses the most prestigious awards in college football. Founded in 1997, the NCFAA and its 25 awards now boast over 800 recipients, dating to 1935. Visit ncfaa.org and @NCFAA on Twitter to learn more about the association.

The members of the NCFAA are unveiling preseason watch lists over a 10-day period this month. Sixteen of the association’s 25 awards are presenting their preseason watch list during this time as the NCFAA has spearheaded a coordinated effort to promote each award’s preseason candidates. Following is the remaining 2021 preseason watch list calendar:

Wed., July 28: Lou Groza Award/Ray Guy Award
Thu., July 29: Hornung Award/Wuerffel Trophy
Fri., July 30: Maxwell Award

Founded in 1941, the Football Writers Association of America consists of 1,300 men and women who cover college football. The membership includes journalists, broadcasters and publicists, as well as key executives in all the areas that involve the game. The FWAA works to govern areas that include game-day operations, major awards and its annual All-America team. For more information about the FWAA and its award programs, contact Steve Richardson at tiger@fwaa.com.

Related links:
• All-time Outland Trophy winners, candidates
• Download 75th Anniversary Outland Trophy logo: Primary (.jpg) | Dark background (.jpg) | Illustrator (.ai)

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

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.

Outland Trophy history: Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh, 2013 recipient Reply

This is the eighth 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.

Aaron Donald became the fourth player to receive the Outland Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy in the same season. The much-decorated defensive tackle was selected by the St. Louis Rams with the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The perennial All-Pro has played his entire career with the Rams, now relocated back in Los Angeles.

 By Gene Duffey, Author

Everyone east of Tom Hanks knows there’s no crying in baseball. So there definitely can’t be any crying in football.

You’re certainly not allowed to shed a tear if you play on the line of scrimmage, where the tougher you are, the better you are.

But it happened on Oct. 15, 2011, to a defensive tackle who would go on to claim the Outland Trophy. Pitt’s Aaron Donald, the 2013 Outland Trophy recipient, admitted he cried that day.

Donald surprised himself that afternoon in his sophomore season. It was the seventh game of the year, a home matchup with Utah. Donald had played regularly as a backup his freshman year and become a starter as a sophomore.

He played well through the first six games. Nothing exceptional. He was on his way to becoming a good player. Not a great one.

Donald changed his path that day against the Utes. He made nine tackles, 3 ½ of them sacks. He was no longer just another player. Aaron Donald was on his way to greatness.

“After that game I went to my dorm room and just busted out crying,” allowed Donald. “I was so happy with myself. Against a good team. I was just overwhelmed.”

Donald didn’t even need to watch the highlights on television. He remembered every one of them. “I kept playing the game over and over in my mind,” he said. “I was making the same plays I was in high school. From that point on I was playing that way the rest of the season. I knew what I needed to do. It just boosted my confidence.”

Paul Chryst, the Pitt head coach for Donald’s junior and senior seasons in 2012-13, wasn’t surprised when he heard the story.  Chryst later became the Wisconsin head coach.

“I could see that,” he said of Donald crying in happiness. “That was his moment. The validation.”

Aaron Donald

Getting to know his coaches at Pitt was never easy for Donald, or anyone else in his class. The Panthers went through four head coaches in four years.

Donald came out of nearby Penn Hills High School to play for coach Dave Wannstedt at Pitt. The Panthers finished 8-5 in 2010, Donald’s freshman year. But it was a disappointing record coming off a 10-3 season.

The Panthers had beaten New Hampshire and Florida International, the type of teams Pitt never used to schedule. They were blown out at home by rival West Virginia. Wannstedt was fired (forced to resign for those of you scoring at home) at the end of the regular season. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett coached Pitt to a bowl victory over Kentucky.

“The people who brought me here wound up leaving,” said Donald, who was recruited by defensive line coach Greg Gattuso. “At the end of the day, I guess it’s a business. It caught me off guard a lot.”

Pitt hired Mike Haywood from Miami of Ohio to replace Wannstedt — then fired him 17 days later after Haywood was arrested on a domestic violence charge.

“I met him one time,” said Donald. “He was going to run a strict program. I didn’t get a feel for him. The last time I saw him he was on the news. It was surprising.”

Next, Pitt turned to Tulsa’s Todd Graham, who used Pitt as a stepping stone to the Arizona State job. Graham left the Panthers after one season, before a bowl loss, and a 6-7 record in 2011.

“I liked Coach Graham,” said Donald. “He gave me a chance to get on the field. That was my breakout year. I received a text that he was leaving. I thought it was a joke when I first got the message. He made a choice that was best for his family.”

Graham had switched Pitt from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 with Donald lining up at defensive end. “It was different being out there,” said Donald. “You have a lot more responsibilities out there, making sure you contain. I had been playing inside all my life.”

Despite the coaching upheaval after every season, Donald wanted to stay put. He said a number of players talked about transferring. But Donald liked where he was, at Pitt, close to home. “If you transfer, you’re going to have a new coach anyway,” he said.

Donald felt comfortable quickly with the next coach, Paul Chryst, who had been the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin and took over the program before the 2012 season, Donald’s junior year. He returned the Panthers to a 4-3 defense, moving Donald back inside.

“Coach Chryst is a great person,” said Donald. “You got that feel for him. He’s honest. He was excited to be there.”

Pitt was pretty much the only place that Aaron Donald wanted to be.

His defensive line coach at Penn Hills, Demond Gibson, had played at Pitt. “I always wanted to go to Pitt or Penn State,” said Donald. “I wanted to be close to home.”

Surprisingly, Penn State made little effort to recruit him. Neither did most other major football colleges. Many held Donald’s height, a mere 6-foot, short for a defensive lineman, against him.

Donald’s older brother, Archie Jr., played linebacker at Toledo at the time.

“I thought about playing at Toledo, because I always wanted to play with my brother,” said Donald. “But I had to jump on (the offer from Pitt). Penn State never offered. I was kind of surprised. I heard a lot of teams were talking about my size. Pitt and Toledo were the only offers.”

Donald committed to Pitt after his junior year at Penn Hills. The bloodlines were in position for him to succeed. His father, Archie, played on the defensive line in high school. He went off to college, but had to quit school after his girlfriend became pregnant.

Archie Jr. taught his younger brother how important academics were, even for a football player.

“I had good grades and bad grades (growing up),” said Aaron. “When I saw what I had to do to get into college, I made the honor roll a couple of times. But I still had to qualify. I took the SAT and the ACT two or three times. I finally passed the ACT. What a relief. I was kind of nervous. I thought I might have to go to Milford Junior College (in New Berlin, N.Y.). The coaches there thought I was going to Milford. They had all my paperwork.”

The Pitt coaches had told Donald he would have a chance to play as a freshman. Donald wanted more. He wanted to start. He lost out to junior Chas Alecxih in the competition at defensive tackle.

 “I was kind of mad,” said Donald. “I had never not started in my career. I played about 10-15 snaps a game. I wanted to play every play.”

He played exceptionally well in a home game against Louisville near the end of the season, recording the first sack of his college career and knocking the quarterback out of the game. 

He was happy he had chosen Pitt, about 10-15 minutes from his home, with no traffic.

Donald went home often as a freshman. He missed his Mom. He missed her cooking. He never missed Sunday night dinner, whether it was steak, chicken or spaghetti. Sometimes she made spinach dip for him to take back to his room.

It took only one spring for Chryst to learn exactly what he had at defensive tackle in Donald.

“When I first came here, I did some quick research and knew he was one of our better players,” said Chryst. “I didn’t have any idea what kind of person he was. The more you got to know him, you became appreciative of the kind of person he is. He was our best player on defense (that first spring). I felt really lucky.”

By 2013 Donald knew what he needed to do to get ready for his senior year. The spectacular season he pieced together was more than just normal maturity.

“I worked my butt off,” he said of his offseason. “I got a lot stronger, so that I could shed blocks better and handle the double teams better. I was constantly in the film room. The only day I took off the whole summer was Sunday.”

It more than paid off.

They call playing on the offensive and defensive lines living in the trenches for a good reason. It’s not war, but it’s the sport world’s equivalent.

Donald spent more time behind enemy lines as a senior than a paratrooper.

He made 54 tackles, despite all the extra attention he received from opponents. He made 26 ½ tackles for loss, including 10 sacks. He also forced four fumbles, broke up two passes and was credited with 16 quarterback hurries.

“He made a decision to be great,” said Chryst. “He plays with a lot of emotion. It’s never been about him. He never draws attention to himself. He approaches the game the same way I do. He showed up every day and enjoyed practice.

“He took it to the (extraordinary) vs. Duke when he tackled the ball carrier and the quarterback on the same play. Are you kidding me. I was always begging him to make that kind of play because that’s what we needed.”

Chryst had worked with Outland Trophy winners before. While serving as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, he tutored offensive tackles Joe Thomas, the 2006 Outland Trophy winner and Gabe Carimi, the 2010 winner.

Donald made 11 tackles, a spectacular number for an interior defensive lineman, in a Nov. 21 loss at Georgia Tech. Six of those were tackles for loss, totaling minus-16 yards. He also forced two fumbles in the game.

That performance certainly got the attention of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, whose Irish were playing at Pitt the following Saturday. Kelly said in his weekly press conference that Donald was “somebody we’ll have to game plan for and slow down.”

The Irish did just that. Donald made only one tackle, but Pitt beat Notre Dame, 28-21.

“There were a lot of double teams,” Donald said of his senior year. “Even triple teamed. You can’t really be mad at that. It’s a sign of respect. Everybody wants to make plays. But that freed up a lot of guys around me.

“Notre Dame was the worst. I would switch from one side to the other and they would slide the protection to me. I got frustrated.”

The Panthers had opened the season with a 41-13 loss to Florida State. The Seminoles debuted a redshirt freshman quarterback named Jameis Winston. He completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns. That was only the beginning for Winston.

“I didn’t expect him to be that big,” Donald said of the 6-4, 230-pound Winston. “I sacked him once, but he broke out of two more of my sacks. We started off good. But we made a lot of mistakes in that game. I never had a clue that (Florida State would win the national championship and Winston would win the Heisman).”

Donald finished his college career with five tackles, one of them a sack and another tackle for loss, in Pitt’s 30-27 victory over Bowling Green in a bowl game.

The other two finalists for the Outland Trophy were Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, son of USC All-American Bruce Matthews, and Baylor guard Cyril Richardson. Donald was surprised he won.

“Growing up you want to be an All-American,” he said. “I never thought I’d be the Outland Trophy winner in a million years. It’s been a great ride, to experience what I did.”

Chryst knew he had to say goodbye to one of a kind.

“With all his awards, he never once didn’t feel general appreciation,” Chryst said. “You don’t replace him. You hope guys learned from him. We’ll have to replace him collectively.”

Outland Trophy history: Offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M, 2012 recipient

This is the seventh in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006-2020.  From 1946-2005, 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.

(Luke Joeckel came out a year early and made himself eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft.  Selected No. 2 overall by Jacksonville, he wound up starting 39 games on the offensive line for the Jaguars from 2013-2016. He started 11 games for Seattle during the 2017 season after he signed a free-agent contract with the Seahawks. Joeckel retired from pro football after the 2017 season and went back to school. He received his business degree from Texas A&M in 2019 and is now in private business.)   

By Gene Duffey, Author

Luke Joeckel had never seen anything like it. The Texas A&M buses were returning from the airport to the Bright Complex on campus near midnight. Joeckel expected a bunch of students to be there greeting the team, but nothing like this.

“When we got off the bus we were swarmed,” said Joeckel. “It was total madness. It was the craziest experience of my life.”

Thousands awaited the triumphant Aggies return from Tuscaloosa where they had beaten Alabama, the nation’s No. 1 team and defending national champion, 29-24.

The way the upset unfolded made the victory even more dramatic. A&M raced to a 20-0 lead after one quarter. “Just going in there, with 102,000, and jumping on them like that was incredible,” said Joeckel. “I can’t ever describe it.”

But the Aggies needed Deshazor Everett’s interception of a fourth-down Alabama pass at the goal line to preserve the win. Texas A&M had proven conclusively that it could compete in the Southeastern Conference.

The Aggies announced Sept. 26, 2011 they were officially leaving the Big 12 to join the SEC. “I was definitely excited about the challenge,” Joeckel said of joining college football’s most dominant conference.

Then Joeckel went to the SEC Media Days in August 2012 in Birmingham, Alabama

“It was hard to listen to all the doubters,” he said. “No one gave us a chance. We were picked to finish 12th (out of 14 teams), I think. It’s all a bunch of stuff I wasn’t expecting. We knew what kind of team we had, and we had a chance to win every game.”

Luke Joeckel

The Aggies were an unknown commodity, with a new coach, a new offense and a new quarterback, a pinball wizard named Johnny Manziel.

Even without Manziel the Aggies showed they belonged in the SEC the year before when they faced Arkansas at Cowboys Stadium. A&M led, 35-17, at halftime, but fell apart in the second half and lost, 42-38. This was an Arkansas team that finished 11-2, losing only to Alabama and LSU who played for the national championship.

“We should have won that game,” said Joeckel. “We had 330 yards rushing in the first half.” A&M outgained Arkansas 381 yards to 71 on the ground and finished the day with 628 yards of total offense.

A&M kept right on rolling after beating Alabama. Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, Joeckel became the first Aggie to win the Outland Trophy, and the Aggies routed Oklahoma, 41-13, in the Cotton Bowl.

Joeckel understood the importance of winning the Outland. He grew up in a family of linemen. His father, David, played offensive tackle at Texas Tech from 1979-82 and went to camp with the Denver Broncos before heading to law school. His older brother, also named David, played on the offensive line at Division III Depauw and began his coaching career as an offensive line coach at North Mesquite High School near Dallas.

“The Outland is a big deal in our family,” said Luke. “I grew up knowing about that award. It was a huge blessing (to win it).”

“That’s the peak,” said Matt Joeckel, Luke’s fraternal twin who played quarterback at A&M and later at TCU. “Offensive linemen aren’t going to win the Heisman. You want to be the best offensive linemen in college football, and winning that Outland Trophy let him know he was the best.”

Luke and Matt are as close as can be, but often fight like, well, like brothers. Luke always won.

“We’ve always gotten along really well,” said Matt. “We definitely have our fights. I always had something on him to get under his skin, to girlfriends, something football, a bad play in a game. Whenever we started arguing it turned into a fight. I don’t think I ever won, but I’m not afraid to fight him, and he knows that. I can get in his head real easily. If it’s a verbal battle, I’ll win that.”

“He’s been able to talk the trash,” Luke said of Matt. “He had this mouth on him and he always got in my head. I had the fists. When it got physical, I beat him up.”

Some mistook them for identical twins when they were young.

“We look a lot alike,” said Matt. “He’s just a lot bigger than me. Growing up he was maybe an inch taller and 10-15 pounds bigger. It didn’t really start changing until high school. He gained like 100 pounds. He started eating more, lifting more. I wanted to be a quarterback.”

Both boys played quarterback on separate teams in junior high. Matt admitted that Luke could throw the ball farther. “There’s not much talent in throwing the ball really far,” said Matt, quick with the needle. “Eighth grade he was thinking about trying out for quarterback and competing with each other because there’s only one team. Then he’s like, ‘No, I just want to hit people.’ ”

Luke Joeckel

“Being the biggest guy on the team, I always got moved back to the offensive line,” said Luke. By the time he was a sophomore he was starting on the offensive line at Arlington High School.

He suffered a broken leg in the third game of the season. “My Dad taught me not to lie on the field, so I got up and walked off,” he said. “I knew I had to go through a bunch of rehab, but it didn’t put me down that much.”

He returned stronger for his junior year and played a little defensive end as a senior in addition to offensive tackle. “I got chopped block playing defensive end and hurt my ankle,” he said. “I was done with defense after that.”

The Joeckels were definite college prospects by their junior years when their father began taking them to games around the state. “He told us when we were little if we go to A&M he’d disown us,” joked Matt.

David took them to a game at College Station  to see the Aggies play Miami, Florida. It made a huge impression on Luke.

“The fans were incredible,” he said. “They stood the whole game. Miami won big, but no one left early.”

The Joeckels didn’t sell themselves as a package deal, though they took all their official visits together, including Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor and Arkansas.

Luke received more attention than Matt starting their junior year, and the boys thought about going their separate ways for college. “It wasn’t a must, but we always kind of knew we’d go to the same school,” said Matt.

Surprisingly, Texas never actively recruited Luke. “I didn’t put (a chip) on my shoulder about it,” he said. “You come here (Texas A&M), you end up hating Texas.”

Because of their father, Texas Tech appeared to be the early favorite. But Luke didn’t like Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense in Lubbock. He favored A&M’s pro-style attack. “I fit the mold a little better,” he said.

The day after the Joeckels made their official visits to College Station, they committed to A&M Coach Mike Sherman, the former Green Bay Packers coach.

“We came here for Coach Sherman,” said Luke. “He was an offensive line guy. He had a higher priority on the offensive line. Our (recruiting) class was the top offensive line in the country.”

Matt, knowing that the other two quarterbacks in that recruiting class were going to enroll early, decided he needed to be there in January. Luke followed along. “It was one of my best decisions,” said Luke. “It helped me a ton in the fall.”

David Joeckel slowly accepted his sons becoming Aggies. “It took him a while to soak it in,” said Luke “(He changed) when he started coming down to the games and saw the fans. They’re almost cult-like. There’s not a better fan base in the country.”

The first day of spring practice Luke lined up at left tackle against junior Adren Dorsey. “I was playing against a guy with a full beard and balding,” said Luke.

The worst part was lining up against A&M’s future All-American defensive end Von Miller. Luke will never forget his first play against Miller, who ended up being the No. 2 player taken in the 2011 NFL Draft.

“I didn’t even touch him,” said Luke. “He ran right by me. I freaked. ‘This is what college football is like?’ I realized later that Miller was a freak of football. There was no one like him in the country. I had to block Von every day. I just tried to get in front of him. I wouldn’t call it blocking.”

Joeckel learned as much from Miller as anyone.

“He’s the biggest reason I am where I am today,” he said. “I couldn’t take too much pride in it because I didn’t do a good job blocking him. It was cool going against a guy who was No. 2 in the draft.”

Damontre Moore, who succeeded Miller at defensive end, provided Joeckel with another good challenge every day.

It didn’t take Sherman long to realize he had something special in Luke Joeckel, who wound up starting all 37 games he played in College Station from 2010-12.

“He was No. 2 for two days,” Sherman said of Joeckel’s first spring. “Let’s stop fooling around and we moved him up (to start). He’s a high character kid. He could process what was happening during the course of a game. If anything wasn’t working, he could figure out what he needed to do.

“He was as good a player as I’ve seen in high school for an offensive lineman. He had big hands he wrapped around you (when you shook hands). His demeanor. You just knew he was going to be good. Winning the Outland Trophy was something else.”

Joeckel started at left tackle his first game as a true freshman against Stephen F. Austin, an easy 48-7 victory.

“I was psyching myself out for the first two series,” said Luke. “I was pretty nervous. Playing in front of 90,000 is different than Arlington High School. I began to realize it wasn’t that hard. I’m good enough to play with these guys. It was a good first step. I graded out all right. I got better each game.”

Joeckel quickly found a kindred spirit that fall in another offensive lineman, Jake Matthews, the son of former USC All-American and Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews.

Jake Matthews had finished his final semester of high school and enrolled that fall. Matthews broke into the starting lineup at right tackle in the fifth game. They pushed each other in practice and they pushed each other in the weight room. They turned everything into a competition.

“Being offensive linemen was what really strengthened our relationship,” said Matthews. “He was just a great guy, worked real hard. We’re basically the same guy. Everything with us is a competition. He’s a great teammate. I just enjoyed being around him. We’re both pretty quiet. We don’t say much. Naturally I was drawn to him because I don’t like big mouth people.”

By their junior year they were regarded as the best pair of offensive tackles in the country.

“He and Jake work harder than anybody I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Matt, who appeared in five games in 2012. “Those guys go extra every day. They’re technicians.”

“They definitely wanted to be the best offensive linemen on campus and in the league,” said Sherman. “They continuously competed against each other in a friendly sort of way.”

Matthews took pride in Joeckel winning the 2012 Outland Trophy and being referred to as the top two offensive tackles in college football.

“That’s a big statement right there,” said Matthews. “That made us work even harder. I’m real grateful for it. It’s very humbling. We got put in this new situation with the SEC. We made the most of it.”

The arrival of Manziel changed A&M’s offense for the 2012 season. He had been recruited to College Station the year before by Sherman, then redshirted.

“He came in as a great athlete with a strong arm,” said Joeckel. “He was always very confident, never arrogant.”

No one could predict that Manziel would become a national sensation his first year playing college football. But he didn’t make the job of the offensive line easy. No one was sure where he would be.

“He’s a wild one,” said Joeckel. “You have to hold your block a little longer and play backyard football. Johnny’s moving everywhere.”

Joeckel, whose escape from football is playing golf, usually with his twin brother (“He’s a really good golfer,” said Matt. “He can shoot in the 70s when he’s playing consistently”), didn’t waste his junior year worrying about the NFL. He never considered leaving early until A&M completed its regular season 10-2 and began preparing for the Cotton Bowl.

“I was dead set on coming back,” he said. “I started thinking about (leaving)   before the bowl game. My Dad did all the research. Everyone who gave me advice said make your own decision, and don’t look back. I figured it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Joeckel, a business marking major, understood there is more to life than football. “The NFL is just a job, not a career,” said Joeckel who made himself eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft and bypassed his senior season at Texas A&M.

Outland Trophy history: Offensive lineman Barrett Jones, Alabama, 2011 recipient

This is the sixth 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.

(Barrett Jones was drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the then St. Louis Rams. He played 10 games with the Rams over two seasons. In 2017, Jones become a broadcaster for ESPN Radio and remains an analyst on the network’s college football and NFL programs. Jones, an Academic All-American at Alabama, claimed the National Football Foundation’s William V. Campbell Trophy, the “Academic Heisman,” and the Wuerffel Trophy, which is awarded to a college football player for his combined athletic, academic and community service.)

By Gene Duffey, Author

It happened when Barrett Jones was only 12. He spent his youth in Germantown, Tenn., a toney suburb of Memphis. His father, Rex, was a successful car dealer.

Rex Jones decided that Barrett, and his other two sons, needed to see life on the other side of the tracks. He wanted them to understand that there were many people in this world who were not as privileged as they were.

In the summer of 2002 Barrett and his family traveled with a group from Bellevue Baptist Church to Honduras.

“We wanted to show them how big the world is and I wanted them to see kids who get up every day trying to find something to eat,” Rex Jones said of his sons. “I wanted them to be givers. That trip really rocked (Barrett’s) world. He realized that the world didn’t circle around him.”

The trip rocked Barrett so much that he decided he wanted to go on another mission. “It was an experience I’ll never forget,” he said. “It opened my eyes to the rest of the world, how fortunate we are in America. It’s something I have a passion for and want to do the rest of life.”

The perfect opportunity arose in 2010 when Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake that killed approximately 300,000 and made another million homeless.

Barrett called his father and told him that he needed to go to Haiti. He passed up a family ski vacation and followed his heart.

Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, needed help. It needed people like Barrett Jones. He worked in a refugee camp, mostly with kids whose parents had died in the earthquake. He even played the violin (started at age 3), entertaining the kids with hymns and spiritual songs.

“The attitude of the Haitian people (was remarkable),” he said. “These kids had lost everything. You wanted to just love them. It was very sad. A lot of them were surprisingly upbeat. I remembered thinking what if I had been in that situation, if I would have been as good.”

Barrett Jones

Jones was nearly thrust into a similar situation the following year. A tornado tore through Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, 2011. Jones, who would win the Outland Trophy eight months later, literally saw the storm blow by him, watching from the balcony of his apartment.

“It’s hard to describe something that massive and that powerful,” Jones told Ivan Maisel of ESPN.com. “I think the weirdest thing was knowing, having seen things like that on TV, that people were probably losing their lives.”

The tornado killed 248 people. Six of them were Alabama students. One was a teammate of Jones, offensive lineman Aaron Douglas.

Naturally, Jones helped organize the Alabama football players who took part in the massive cleanup effort.

When Alabama visited the White House in honor of winning the 2011 national championship, President Obama talked about the devastation caused by the tornado. He singled out Jones for lugging “a chainsaw around Tuscaloosa to remove tornado debris from homes and yards.”  

Barrett returned to Haiti in the summer of 2011. Instead of bragging about Alabama’s 2009 national championship, he taught the gospel. Hardie Buck, a wide receiver for the Crimson Tide, went on the trip with him.

Jones had caught a taste of how the poor lived in the inner city of Memphis. But it couldn’t prepare him for the poverty that he saw on his two trips to Haiti. “It didn’t compare to what you see in Haiti,” he said. “It’s pretty rough over there. Very impoverished. It made me feel fortunate. Makes you appreciate more what you have.”

Jones had found his passion. He realized the missions were something he wanted to do forever.  

During the summer of 2012 he took another trip with the same church group, this time to Nicaragua. Jones would not be just a member of the group. Rex Jones asked him to lead the delegation.

“I want you to organize all of it,” Rex told his son. “He led the whole trip. As a Dad, it was incredible.”

There are always bumps in the road on such ventures. One day the bus didn’t arrive to pick up the group. Barrett asked his father what to do. “You’re on your own,” Rex told him.

Rex Jones played basketball at Alabama in the early 1980s, a 6-3 reserve guard on Tide teams that went 62-31. Alabama made the NCAA Tournament all three years.

Dad didn’t play a part in Barrett’s college decision. Barrett took official visits to Alabama, Florida and North Carolina. He made unofficial trips to Tennessee and Mississippi.

The most important ingredient in a college football program for Jones was the chance to win championships. He had played in three straight state championship games for Evangelical Christian in Tennessee, winning it his sophomore season.

Nick Saban arrived at Alabama for the 2007 season. The Tide went only 7-6 in his first season, but Jones knew that Saban was beginning to build something special in Tuscaloosa.

“Alabama had the best chance to win championships,” Jones said. “What impressed me was Nick Saban. All the best schools are going to have similar facilities. It’s the people.”

Barrett had a chance meeting with Saban years before Alabama started recruiting him. Jimmy Sexton, Saban’s agent, is a neighbor of the Joneses in Germantown.

While Saban was coaching LSU, Sexton asked Rex and Barrett if they wanted to accompany him to an LSU game at Mississippi State. They watched the game from the Tiger sideline.

After the game, Sexton and the Joneses rode with Saban to the airport. For a young boy, meeting Saban was an experience that Barrett never forgot, particularly when it came to recruiting time.

Much like his father, Barrett began his athletic career playing basketball. He was a 6-4 center in high school.

“Basketball was my best sport until 10th grade,” he said. “But I realized there wasn’t much future in basketball for a 6-4 center.”

Jones first played organized football in sixth grade as a linebacker. “I loved tackling,” he said. “I was tall, but skinny.” He played both ways in seventh grade and moved permanently to the offensive line the following year. “Basketball helped with the footwork,” he said.  

He looked up to the smart players in the NFL. Peyton Manning was one of his favorites. He also liked Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday and Dallas tight end Jason Witten. He dreamed of playing tight end someday, but never made it.

Jones realized he might have a future in football when he attended a summer camp at Auburn after his sophomore year of high school. Tommy Tuberville, then the Auburn coach, offered Smith a scholarship. Jones had grown up an Alabama fan and wasn’t ready to commit.

He began his Alabama career playing guard. He made his first appearance in 2008 in the third game of the season, a 41-7 rout of Western Kentucky. “I was very nervous,” he recalled.

Jones played in two more games that year, then suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery and ended his season. Playing in only three games, he qualified for a redshirt year.

“It was good for me to redshirt,” he said. “I was 270 (when I first got to Tuscaloosa), but needed to put on some weight.”

He started every game at right guard as a redshirt freshman in 2009. The Tide went 12-2 and were on their way.

“I look back at my first two games and I was terrible,” remembered Jones. A defensive lineman from Mississippi beat him badly on one play and got a solid hit on Alabama quarterback Greg McIlvoy. “I apologized to (McIlvoy),” said Jones.

Jones knew Alabama was going somewhere after a 24-15 victory over LSU to stretch its record to 9-0. “After that game we knew we had a chance to do something special,” Jones said.

Alabama finished 14-0 and faced Texas for the national championship in the Rose Bowl.

“I was so nervous,” he said of the day of the game. “(Negative) thoughts you shouldn’t have. I thought don’t mess it up in front of 50 million.”

The Crimson Tide beat Texas, 37-21. The Longhorns entered the game with the No. 1 rushing defense in the country, giving up just 62 yards a game. But the Longhorns couldn’t stop the Tide tandem of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.

Ingram, who had just won the Heisman Trophy, ran 22 times for 116 yards and scored two touchdowns. Richardson ran 19 times for 115 yards and two more scores. Alabama finished with 246 yards rushing.

Jones appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week in his natural habitat, blocking for Ingram.

“I had two unbelievable backs to block for,” he said. “They’re very modest. It’s fun to play with guys like that, they’re so talented.”

It evolved into a good relationship. The backs made Barrett’s job easier and he made the backs look good. “It was more the former than the latter,” Jones said.

He took great pride in Ingram winning the Heisman, the first in Alabama history.

“It was cool to be able to block for him,” said Jones. “The offensive line had something to do with it. It’s a great achievement for an offensive line. Mark was a great leader. Very unselfish. Everybody respected him.”

After adding a national title to his resume, Jones looked around the Rose Bowl at the end of the game.

“We just won the national championship,” he thought. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. It’s surreal. Nothing’s as good as you think (it will be). I’ve been working for this all my life, but it kind of left me empty.”

Surprisingly, Alabama lost three games in 2010, near sacrilegious in the Saban era. The Tide lost on the road to South Carolina and LSU and suffered a stinging 28-27 home loss to Auburn after blowing a 21-0 lead. Jones didn’t play in the Auburn game because of a high ankle sprain.

Alabama gave a hint of what awaited opponents the following season when it buried Michigan State, 49-7, in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.

Jones said that 2010 team was the most talented one he played on, despite playing on national championship teams in 2009, 2011 and 2012. “We weren’t as hungry as the year before,” he said.  “We took out our frustrations on Michigan State.”

For the 2011 season, Jones switched to left tackle, that famous Blind Side position. “It was a big change,” he said. “It’s totally different pass protection. You’ve got some talented (defensive) athletes on that side.”

Alabama climbed its way up to No. 2 in the country in 2011 going into a showdown with No. 1 LSU Nov. 5 at Tuscaloosa. It was promoted as that year’s Game of the Century.

“It was so hyped,” said Jones. “Like the Super Bowl. It was a war. The most physical game I’ve ever been a part of.”

In a throwback to college football of the 1940s, no one scored a touchdown. LSU won, 6-3, in overtime. It appeared Alabama had blown any chance of winning another national championship. Was there any chance they would meet LSU again?

“We weren’t sure,” said Jones. “A lot had to happen.”

It did. Previously undefeated Stanford and Oklahoma State both lost, moving Alabama up to No. 2 in the BCS rankings. There would be a rematch with LSU in New Orleans for the national championship.

Alabama was well prepared.

“We felt really confident,” said Jones. “That first game helped fuel us.”

Playing the Tigers for the second time in a season stirred different emotions from facing Texas in the 2009 national championship game.

“It was a different feeling,” said Jones. “We’d been there before. It was more about beating LSU.”

Alabama did. The Tide dominated, 21-0.

It appeared that the NFL was the only goal left for him to achieve. He had graduated in 3 ½ years and was already enrolled in graduate school, working on a master’s in accounting. But he decided to stay for his senior year, accepting another change in positions, this one to center.

“The calls are not that bad,” he said of playing center. “The biggest thing was snapping the ball. I did think about (leaving for the NFL early). I love Alabama and love playing there.”

In 2012, Jones added a third national title to his collection, when the Tide beat Notre Dame in the BCS Title Game. Jones completed the cycle of playing three positions on the offensive line at Alabama successfully on three national title teams — a rare, if not unheard of, feat in major-college football. He claimed the 2012 Rimington Trophy (given to the top center) to pair with his 2011 Outland.

Outland Trophy history: Offensive tackle Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin, 2010 recipient

This is the fifth in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006-2020.  From 1946-2005, 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.

(Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi became the second Wisconsin offensive lineman to claim the Outland Trophy during a five-year period. He had 49 starts at left tackle in his four-year college career. Carimi was selected by the Chicago Bears, 29th overall, in the 2011 NFL Draft. He played four seasons in the NFL, two with the Bears and one each for Tampa and Atlanta.)

By Gene Duffey, Author

Early in his career as a Wisconsin Badger Gabe Carimi showed he could follow a legend and do it his way.

The phone call surprised Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema. Alayne Gardner-Carimi, the mother of Bielema’s redshirt freshman offensive tackle, wanted to talk.

Alayne told Bielema that her son, Gabe, was Jewish and would be fasting before the Iowa game, Sept. 22, for Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays. Tradition dictates that Jews fast from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.

“Thank goodness Iowa’s a night game,” said Alayne.

“It took me by surprise,” said Bielema. “We’ve had a number of Jewish kids on the team. There’s a large Jewish population in Wisconsin.”

The Badgers entered the Iowa game, their Big Ten opener, with 3-0 record. They beat the Hawkeyes, 17-13.

Carimi played. He said that fasting did not affect him. He did eat some bread before taking the field.

“I made that decision on my own,” he said of the decision to fast. “I felt fine.”

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish religion, came into play again during Carimi’s senior year. Once again he fasted for the 24 hours before the Sept. 18 home game vs. Arizona State. The Badgers beat The Sun Devils, 20-19, in Wisconsin’s third game of the season.

A favorite axiom in sports is don’t try to succeed a legend. Carimi did just that at Wisconsin.

Offensive tackle Joe Thomas won the Outland Trophy in 2006, the same year Carimi arrived on campus. Carimi took over at left tackle for Thomas in 2007 as a redshirt freshman and started for four years.

The Cleveland Browns selected Thomas with the No. 3 pick overall in the ’07 draft. Instead of leaving a gaping hole at left tackle, Carimi made it seem as if Thomas had never left.

Gabe Carimi

“When you replace an Outland Trophy winner and there’s not one article written about it, (it must have been a smooth transition),” said Bielema.

What did Carimi learn from his one year with Thomas at Wisconsin?

“I talked to him a little bit,” said Carimi. “I watched his films and I was able to emulate his play, his techniques. I didn’t make aspirations. Just take it day by day. I felt like I believed in my abilities. I always thought I would try to be as good as him.”

Carimi came from Cottage Grove, Wisconsin which used to be home to chewing tobacco farms. The area eventually evolved into a bedroom community for Madison.

He seemed destined to go to Wisconsin. Carimi remembered watching the Badgers beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl at the end of the 1993 season. He attended at least one Wisconsin game a season during his high school years.

When Carimi developed into a desirable recruit his senior year of high school, Michigan State, Indiana, Nebraska and Michigan all wanted him. “Once Wisconsin offered me, I knew I was going there,” he said. “They’ve always produced good offensive linemen.”

Bielema saw the potential for growth in Carimi.

“He was good in camp here before his senior year,” said Bielema. “He was probably 6-5, slender build, about 250, but a big frame. His father was a large man, so he definitely had the potential.”

Carimi’s father, Sanford, a doctor, stands 6-foot-6, but didn’t play football. He went out for the team his freshman year of high school, but ended up playing in the band. Talk about the Big Band era.

Gabe began playing organized football in seventh grade, on the offensive and defensive lines. His size made him a natural.

He was born in Lake Forest, Illinois and his family moved to Cottage Grove for his eighth-grade year. He played at Monona Grove High School for Coach Mike Stassi, making the all-state team as a senior. He also competed in track, throwing the shot put and discus.

Once he arrived at Wisconsin, there was no question that Carimi would play offense.

 “I thought I had a better chance of being a better player on offense,” he said. “I realized I could be a quick offensive lineman or a slow defensive lineman.”

Going to a school that thrived on running the ball made sense.

“Pass blocking was always harder (than run blocking),” he said. “You’re moving backward on a pass against someone moving forward.”

While Carimi redshirted his first season at Wisconsin, another offensive lineman, Jake Bscherer, played as a true freshman. Bscherer and Carimi competed for the job to replace Joe Thomas the following year. Bscherer eventually started eight games at left guard and right tackle in 2009, then transferred before the 2010 season.

Carimi started as a redshirt freshman at Thomas’ former spot at left tackle against Washington State. Most freshmen are nervous in their first game. Not Carimi. “I played really well,” he said. “I thought it was just like practice.”

The Badgers won, 42-21, before the usual sellout of 81,547 at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin marched up and down the field, totaling 486 yards of total offense.

Good competition should make any player better. Carimi faced one of the best every day in practice, blocking defensive end J.J. Watt, who ended up being the first-round draft pick of the Houston Texans in 2011.

“I got to practice against the best offensive lineman in the country every day,” Watt said of Carimi. “I think we made each other better. I think that’s why we were both first-round picks.  He exposed my flaws, I exposed his. When you get to face a guy (like that) every single day, it makes you a whole lot better.

“He’s very smart, strong guy,” Watt said of Carimi. “For his size, he could move very well. He always knew what he was doing and he could anticipate the defensive lineman’s moves.”

No matter how often linemen hit each other in practice, they rarely get close off the field, the offense and defense going their own ways.

“Offensive linemen mostly hang out with just offensive linemen,” said Carimi.

“I was defense, he was offense, there’s always that little bit of head butting,” Watt said. “Those offensive line guys are a different breed. They lead within their own group. We were buddies. He’s definitely a quiet guy, a little reserved. But he’s got a quiet confidence about him. That’s why he has success.”

Although Carimi enjoyed similar college success as Thomas, they were different types of people.

“On the field, their personalities are similar, always willing to play through the whistle,” said Bielema. “(But) Joe was pretty outgoing. Gabe takes his time to get to know somebody.”

The teammate who probably appreciated Carimi the most was tight end Garrett Graham, who also went on to play in the NFL.

“He helped me out a lot along the way,” Graham said of Carimi. “He’s a great blocker. Sticking that big paw out and knocking people over, makes you look a little better than you really are. When you’ve got a guy like that playing next to you, and the line we had, it makes it easier on the tight ends. Me and Gabe had countless double teams in practice, and in the games. You want to run behind Gabe, that’s for sure.”

Graham saw the serious side of Carimi during the games and the fun side away from football.

“When it comes to on the field, making calls, getting everybody ready to go, hyping up the team, he’s definitely not shy when it comes to that,” said Graham. “We became good buddies. (Off the field he’s) opposite than how he is on the field. Like a big, teddy bear, all about having fun. You’d see him out all the time, mostly with the O-linemen. They tend to get rowdy, walking around Madison. They were definitely a fun group to hang out with. When you put five 300-pounders together hanging at a bar, things tend to get worked up. You can use your imagination.”

Carimi suffered a torn medial collateral ligament his sophomore year in a three-point loss to Ohio State.  “I put my guy on the ground and the whole pile fell on me,” he said. “I heard about five clicks. I jumped up and realized (I was hurt) and fell back down.”

He did not require surgery and returned three weeks later against Michigan State.

“I probably shouldn’t have come back that quickly,” he said. “It takes some time for those to heal. I played and nothing happened. But I wasn’t at full strength.”

Including Watt, Carimi played against four first round draft picks his senior year. He said he played his best game of the season against Iowa’s A.J. Clayborn, taken by Tampa Bay with the 20th pick overall, and also faced TCU’s Jerry Hughes, selected by Indianapolis with the 31st choice, in the Rose Bowl.

Carimi allowed only one sack his senior year, against Michigan State. “I didn’t set right,” he said. “Possibly being relaxed on the play and he beat me to the inside.”

Michigan defensive end Tim Jamison tried to get around Carimi several times in their college career.

“He had good footwork,” said Jamison. “That separated him from a lot of guys I went against in college. You’ve got to use your hands going against him. A young Joe Thomas, I guess. He wasn’t a trash talker. He’s a hard-working guy. He deserved (the Outland).”

Jamison said he knew about Carimi ahead of time because his brother, Terrence, played at Wisconsin.

Wisconsin had been stopped by close losses several times in Carimi’s career at Madison.  

In 2008 the Badgers lost to Michigan by two, to Ohio State by three and to Michigan State by one, then fell to Florida State in the Champs Bowl in Orlando to finish with a disappointing 7-6 record.

In 2009 the Badgers roared off to an 8-2 start before losing, 33-31, at Northwestern. They ended the season with a satisfying 20-14 victory over Miami (Florida) in the Champs Bowl. The Badgers used a 430-249 edge in total offense to control the game.

“We were heavy underdogs,” Carimi said proudly. “We were way more physical than they were.”

Everything fell into place his senior year in 2010. Wisconsin went 11-1 in the regular season, losing only at Michigan State, and scored 70 points on Northwestern and 83 on Indiana late in the year.

The Badgers then met undefeated TCU in the Rose Bowl. Carimi’s college career ended with a tough 21-19 loss to the Horned Frogs.

 Wisconsin outrushed the Frogs 226 yards to 82, but the whole game was decided by one play.

Wisconsin scored on a four-yard run by Montee Ball with exactly two minutes to play, then failed on the two-point conversion that would have tied the game.

“A linebacker (TCU’s Tank Carder) went the wrong way, we had a guy wide open and he batted down the ball,” said Carimi. “He got lucky.”

Wisconsin became known for its tough running backs, from Alan “The Horse” Ameche winning the Heisman Trophy in 1954 to burly Ron Dayne winning it in 1999. The tradition was built around offensive linemen such as Dennis Lick, Ray Snell and Aaron Gibson, people in the mold of Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi.

Opponents know what the Badgers will do on offense and still can’t stop them.

“We’d look at the film later and they would have eight or nine in the box,” Carimi said of opposing defenses. It didn’t matter.

Carimi blocked for quality backs in Madison named P.J. Hill, John Clay and Ball. “You always block the same,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who’s back there.”

Graham fondly recalled the rushing offense at Madison.

“Everybody took pride in the Wisconsin running game,” he said. “I think that’s why it’s such a tradition there for so long.”

Outland Trophy history: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska, 2009 recipient 1

This is the fourth in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006-2020.  From 1946-2005, 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.

(Nebraska Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh was the third player to win both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Best Defensive Player) and the Outland Trophy during the same season. After being named unanimous All-American in 2009, he was drafted No. 2 overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2010 NFL Draft. A five-time Pro Bowler, he has played for the Lions, Miami, Los Angeles Rams and now Tampa Bay. He has played in two Super Bowls, one with the Rams and this past February for the Buccaneers in their victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.)    

Ndamukong Suh did not play football as a freshman in high school. His mother wouldn’t allow it. She wanted him to emphasize academics over athletics. Bernadette was a teacher in the public schools in Portland, Oregon.

When Ndamukong earned a 3.0 GPA his freshman year at Grant High, Bernadette relented. “I had to prove I could handle my school work first,” said Suh. That was the day a defensive tackle was born.

Suh had attempted to play soccer before football. When he was 12, an opposing coach took his team off the field in protest after four of his players were knocked down by the oversized young boy. Suh was already frustrated with the sport, confused why he was whistled for yellow and red cards when any contact occurred. He figured that football was better suited to his athletic abilities.  

There was an incident in eighth grade that hurt Suh’s reputation. He became involved in a physical altercation with a male teacher. Suh was suspended from school for the final month and a half. The school made “a huge deal out of it,” he said.

“I was by no means wrong,” Suh told Jason Quick of The Oregonian. Suh didn’t realize his own strength. But the incident did give him a new outlook entering high school.

“That kind of opened my eyes to the real world,” he said to Quick. “I realized I just needed to get my act right and get focused, pay attention to things that were in front of me. I had always dreamed of going to college, and saw my sister (Ngum) getting good grades and I decided I was going to follow her. I was going to stop being a hard-headed boy.”

Besides his size and strength, Suh was different from most kids. In the summers he often went to work with his father Michael, an engineer.

“I was a weird kid,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to the park, I wanted to go to work with him.”

Ndamukong Suh

Ndamukong played with model cars and Legos growing up.

Michael, from Cameroon, had played semi-pro soccer. Bernadette, who was from Jamaica, had played cricket and run track. They named their son Ndamukong, which means House of Spears in the Cameroon language of Ngemba. The parents divorced when Ndamukong was only 2.

Suh found his sport, and his future, in football. He made Oregon’s all-state team as a senior. Many of the major colleges were after him.

But the other side of Suh began surfacing on the field. In the final game of his high school career, Suh was ejected for punching an opponent. He said the opposing center and guard were double teaming him, using an illegal block that could have injured his knees. Suh warned the opponents. They did it again. Suh hit one of them. He was ejected from the game.

Suh did not handle the ejection well. When he reached the sideline, he threw his helmet against a concrete wall. A female fan connected with the other team, leaned over the railing and taunted Suh.

“My parents did a good job telling me not to pay attention to the things people were saying,” he said. “They told me to by myself.”

Suh had developed into a versatile athlete. He played basketball, earning honorable mention on Portland’s Public School League all-star team, and competed in track, winning the state championship in the shot put.

Tragedy struck close to Suh during his senior season of basketball. Eddie Barnett, a 5-8 junior guard and teammate of Suh’s, nicknamed “Little Eddie,” collapsed during a game at Madison High School. He died later at Providence Portland Medical Center. Barnett had also been a teammate of Suh’s on the football team.

Suh had grown to 6-4 and 278 pounds by his senior year. He played on the offensive line as well, but colleges viewed him as a natural at defensive tackle. Rivals.com rated him the sixth best defensive tackle recruit in the country.

He made visits to nearby Oregon State as well as California, Miami, Mississippi State and Nebraska.

Suh’s older sister went to Mississippi State, where she played soccer. John Blake, the former Oklahoma coach, was an assistant in Starkville at the time. He had coached Ngum’s boyfriend.

“Through my sister he heard about me and when (Blake) moved to Nebraska, he continued to recruit me,” said Suh. “It ended up coming down to Cal or Nebraska.”

Suh played in the U.S. Army All-American Game for high school seniors in San Antonio. 

“There were about six other guys already committed to Nebraska,” said Suh. “They saw Nebraska was high on my list. They wanted me to commit right there. I wanted to wait until the last minute. I wanted to make sure I covered all the ground to make the best decision.

“The best part (of recruiting) was all the dinners and food. I had games Friday night and I would catch a redeye flight to whatever school I was going to that weekend.”

Nebraska offered a program in architectural engineering. Suh had been interested in engineering since going to work with his father as a kid.

“My Dad probably doesn’t know it, but he was my idol,” Suh said several years later on Mike & Mike in the Morning. “I was following in his footsteps. I didn’t want to be perceived like that college football player (who takes) an easy major.”

Suh played in two games as a true freshman in Lincoln, then suffered a knee injury that ended his season.

“I wish I had known the game was going to be a lot faster (than high school),” he said. “It would have been easier to adjust. But that’s part of going from high school football to college.”

He became a starter as a sophomore, but Coach Bill Callahan was fired after a 5-7 record that fall. Enter Bo Pelini, the defensive coordinator at LSU. Pelini saw he had a special talent in Suh that first spring of 2008.

“He had a lot of potential at that point, but he had a lot of work to do,” said Pelini. “He was so talented and had so much potential. He needed better footwork. He committed himself. He really became a student of the game. He put a lot of work in. It was not necessarily anything (I did). We got him moving in the right direction. But he was always a driven guy.”

The results didn’t show up until that fall.

Suh missed Pelini’s first spring with a knee injury that required surgery. “He was able to sit back and watch what the coaches were teaching, new techniques,” Pelini said. “It was remarkable how fast he came back.”

Suh became a force his junior year, being named to the All-Big 12 team. He also helped Pelini turn the Cornhuskers back into winners, going 9-4 including a win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl.

By his senior year, Suh couldn’t be blocked. He was a one-man defensive highlight film in a come-from-behind 27-12 victory against ranked Missouri in the rain.

Jared Crick played next to Suh on the defensive line.

“Toward the beginning of the season he got a lot of double teams,” said Crick. “Once I started coming around and making plays, I started seeing a lot of double teams near the end of the year. It was kind of 50-50. You double team him, I’m going to hurt you. You try to double me, he’s obviously going to hurt you.”

Nebraska went 9-3 in the regular season, winning the Big 12 North. The Cornhuskers squared off against undefeated and No. 3 Texas in the conference championship game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.

Suh played one of the best games ever for a college defensive lineman that night. He made 12 tackles, including 4 ½ sacks of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy. Nebraska appeared to win the game when it forced McCoy to throw the ball away as time ran out. But the officials put one second back on the clock, allowing Texas to kick a field goal for a 13-12 victory.

“It was very tough,” Suh said of the loss. “It’s still tough. I hope I don’t have to ever go through it again.”

More people probably remember Suh’s performance than Texas winning the game.

“For that game Texas didn’t change their offense at all,” Suh told Mike & Mike. “They felt they could run and do anything they wanted to do and didn’t have to put in any tweaks into their offense like most teams did with the great defensive line we had. We knew everything they were going to do. So it was easy for me to get where I needed to be. We had a blast.”

“He let it all hang out that game,” Crick said of Suh. “The one thing that surprised me with Suh was his strength. Obviously, he worked hard in the weight room. He could hold off teams with one arm. Some of the stuff he did was pretty unbelievable.” 

Suh’s statistics his senior year were unreal. He made 85 tackles, including 12 sacks and 24 tackles for loss. He was credited with 26 quarterback hurries and blocked three kicks. He even intercepted a pass.

Suh was invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy announcement, the first defensive tackle there since Miami’s Warren Sapp in 1994. Alabama’s Mark Ingram won the Heisman. Suh finished fourth, one notch below Texas’ McCoy.

Suh ended his college career by helping Nebraska shut out Arizona, 33-0, in a bowl game.

“Did I know he would get that good? No,” said Pelini. “(The Texas game) was one of the all-timers. At times it looked so effortless, he was so powerful. People don’t realize how gifted an athlete he is. He’s a very intelligent, very grounded guy. He never got big headed.”

“I never fathomed this,” said Suh. “I always thought I was a good player and knew I could work at my position. I’ve always had the work ethic.” 

Pelini had coached another Outland Trophy winner at LSU when defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey won in 2007.

“They had that drive to be the best, that inner feel that all the great ones have,” Pelini said of Suh and Dorsey.

Pelini and Suh became a perfect team.

“When Coach Bo came in, the scheme fit (Suh’s) strengths the best,” said Crick, who went on to play for the Houston Texans. “We wanted to be the most athletic interior linemen in the nation and we approached workouts every day with that mind, show off our running skills. Suhie’s a freak athlete, so that really showcased him. We had a great defensive line.”

The Detroit Lions took Suh with the second pick overall in the 2010 draft. He signed a contract that guaranteed him $31 million.

Suh didn’t forget where he came from.

He announced that he would donate $2.6 million to Nebraska with $2 million going for the strength program and $600,000 to the college of engineering where he had earned his degree. He requested that students from his other alma mater, Grant High School in Portland, be given first preference for a scholarship.

Suh became a contradictory character in Detroit when he earned the reputation as the dirtiest player in the NFL, being suspended and fined for stomping on opposing players.

“He was kind of quiet, kept to himself,” Crick said of their Nebraska days. “That’s how I was. Come in, do my job and make friends later. He had his priorities in order. Once he’s comfortable around you, he opens up. We became great friends. He’s got a good soul. He’d do anything for you.”

Suh developed into an extremely smart athlete with a hair trigger temper. He was fined repeatedly in the NFL, mostly for dirty hits on opposing quarterbacks. “This is a guy who plays by his own rules,” said Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press.

When he returns to Lincoln, Suh keeps to himself—much as he did as a player.

“He didn’t really do too much talking (during the games),” said Crick. “He didn’t need to. He did his work with his hands and his play. I can’t tell you the amount of times guys would come at him, take jabs at him. He took them in stride.”

“I love being different,” he told The Oregonian’s Quick in 2011. “I love people saying that I’m not like other people. It’s a compliment to me. I think I’m different, but in a good way.”

Outland Trophy History: offensive tackle Andre Smith, Alabama, 2008 recipient

This is the third in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006-2020.  From 1946-2005, 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.

(Andre Smith became Alabama’s second Outland Trophy recipient when he anchored the offensive line of a 12-2 Alabama team that lost in the SEC title game to Florida and fell to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. He then was selected No. 6 overall in the 2009 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. Besides the Bengals, Smith has played for Minnesota, Arizona and will suit up for a third season for Baltimore this coming fall.)    

By Gene Duffey, Author

Andre Smith’s career at running back could best be described as brief.

He first played football in fifth grade for the Pinson Valley Youth Club in Birmingham, Alabama. He played in the Unlimited Division, facing guys two and three years older. Because of his size, even at that age, Smith was destined to be a lineman. “I was bigger than most people,” he said. “I took it as a positive.”

Smith played for championship teams in Youth leagues and Little League. During one blowout win, he lined up at running back.

“I carried the ball one time and I fumbled,” he remembered. “They had the scrubs in (on the line). I got hit really hard.”

Back to the line.

Smith did well on the defensive line. He collected several quarterback hurries and tackles for losses. But it never quite felt like home.

“I liked offense way more,” he said. “With offense you have the element of surprise.”

Smith helped his middle school teams win titles in seventh and eighth grade, but didn’t get carried away with the success. “I just sat back and chilled,” he said.

When he started on the offensive line as a freshman at Huffman High School in Birmingham college coaches started to notice.

Huffman Coach Curtis Coleman soon began hearing from the recruiters.

“College coaches thought I was a senior when I was a freshman,” said Smith. “They would inquire about me.”

“He’s just a stinking freshman,” Coleman told them.

Huffman won a key game against J.O. Johnson High School in September 2004, Smith’s junior year. Smith literally knocked over the opposition, credited with 18 pancake blocks.

Andre Smith

The game was played two days after Hurricane Ivan struck Alabama, the year before Katrina devastated New Orleans. The hurricane hit Gulf Shores, Alabama as a Category 3. Twenty-five people in the U.S. were killed and total damage was estimated at over $14 billion.

Smith received only modest reviews from the people who count the most. “My coaches told me, ‘Great game,’” he recalled. “That was it. I guess they didn’t want it going to my head.”

Huffman’s teams never enjoyed the type of success that Smith achieved in youth football and middle school. Huffman went 6-5 his freshman year, 7-4 as a sophomore and 6-5 again his junior and senior seasons.

Smith’s team received more notoriety in basketball. Huffman reached the state finals with a team that included Stanley Robinson, who was on his way to Connecticut, and Demant Jimerson, who played basketball at Alabama.

Nationally, everyone knew Andre Smith, the football player.  A 6-foot-4, 325-pound high school offensive lineman became extremely popular.

Rivals.com rated him the fourth best prospect in the country in 2006, ahead of such future starts as Clemson’s C.J. Spiller and Florida’s Tim Tebow.

Everyone in the state of Alabama must take sides. You have to root for the Auburn Tigers or the Crimson Tide.  Smith was more of an Auburn fan, particularly in 2004.

Coach Tommy Tuberville’s Tigers ripped through the ’04 season undefeated, beating Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game and edging Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to earn a No. 2 national ranking, behind only USC.

Despite the excitement of Auburn’s perfect season in Smith’s junior year of high school, he approached recruiting with an open mind.

“I was 50/50 when (Auburn) played Alabama,” he admitted.

Smith’s parents helped Andre, the oldest of four children, with recruiting.

Andre Sr., who played defensive end and tight end in high school, owned his own business. His mother worked for the government. They stressed education.   

“My Mom and Dad handled everything,” he said of the recruiting process. “I didn’t have to talk to coaches every night.”

Smith made official visits to Florida, LSU, Miami (Florida) and USC, as well as Alabama.

He flew to Los Angeles to see Pete Carroll’s Trojans for his first visit. “I wanted to commit to USC right then,” he said. “It was so different. My Mom said, ‘No. You have to make your other visits.’ ”

He eventually decided that USC was too far from home and would cost his parents too much to fly to Los Angeles to see him play.

Smith continued to be popular with SEC schools. One day LSU’s Les Miles, Florida’s Urban Meyer and Alabama’s Mike Shula were outside Smith’s house, waiting to talk with him.

“Rumors had it that I was already going to Alabama, so they kind of backed off, which I understood,” Smith said of LSU and Miami.
 Alabama was coming off a 10-2 season in 2005, including a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech. Tuscaloosa was only an hour away from Birmingham and Smith liked Shula.

“Coach Shula was a great guy,” he said. “We had a little connection. The same day I signed, he had his second daughter. He said he got two gifts in one day.”

Antoine Caldwell, another offensive lineman, was Smith’s host on his official visit to Alabama.

Caldwell, who went on to be a third-round pick by the Houston Texans, did his homework on recruits.

“I had watched film on him,” Caldwell said of Smith. “I knew he would be something else. He was dominating, which I guess is what you’re supposed to do when you’re that big. He was so quiet. He didn’t want to do anything. Real soft-spoken.”

The nice guy personality that Smith projected belied his fierceness in football.

“You have to be a different person for the position of offensive line,” he said. “You have to have that mean streak in you, or your quarterback is going to get hit, or your running back is going to get hit. I was always a competitor.” 

Smith quickly broke into the starting lineup at Alabama. By the third day of camp he became the starting left tackle. “It was a little surprising they threw me in the fire so fast,” he said. “I adjusted really well. At least that’s what they told me.”

He knew everyone was watching. Being the most high-profile recruit in the class from a nearby city, people wanted to know if he had the talent to match the hype. There were doubters.

“Am I going to be a ‘bust?’ ” Smith knew people were thinking. “That’s the devil trying to play with you. Am I going to be an embarrassment to the university?”

Alabama opened the 2006 season at home against Hawaii and won by a mere 25-17, a harbinger of the problems ahead for Shula. Smith was headed in the right direction, the Tide wasn’t.

“I did really well,” Smith said of his game against Hawaii. “I didn’t give up a sack. I was going against a defensive end (Ikaika Alama-Francis) who got drafted in the second round. You were going against guys just as big and just as strong as you are. After the first two plays I knew I was going to be all right.”

Caldwell started at center with Smith at left tackle.

“From the day he showed up, he was an incredible athlete,” said Caldwell. “Watching him grow up was awesome to see. To be that big. He was overweight when he came in–345, 350. He worked his tail off and got down to around 330. It was amazing seeing him work every day. He had real nimble feet for a guy that size. He was unbelievable. He was the best offensive lineman I’d ever been around, ever played with, ever seen at the college level.

“We were real close. We spent a lot of time together. He was a normal, mild-mannered guy. He really didn’t talk too much. When we got together, we had a great time. He’d go out, hang out some. Never a trouble maker. He was one of the best kids I’ve been around.”

Smith was doing very well for a true freshman. Alabama wasn’t. After winning its first three games, the ship began to sink. The Tide finished 6-6 in the regular season and 2-6 in conference play.

The year ended with a loss to Oklahoma State in the Independence Bowl. So did Mike Shula’s career as coach at Alabama.

 Shula’s dismissal saddened Smith. But better times were ahead when Alabama turned to Nick Saban.

“I was really happy Coach Saban got the job,” said Smith. “That’s the best thing that happened to me as far as football. He’s just so passionate about the game. At first things were different. He just demanded the best. (The offense) wasn’t that much of a change.”

That first season under Saban proved to be a bit choppy. Alabama finished with four straight losses, including a shocker to Louisiana-Monroe at home. At least the Tide won the Independence Bowl this time, beating Colorado.

The following spring Smith could see something good beginning to happen.

“We felt like we were going to be really successful,” he said. “Since then everything was roses.”

Smith was right. Alabama went 12-0 in the regular season, ending its six-game losing streak against hated Auburn with a resounding 36-0 victory.

Alabama boasted maybe the best offensive line in the country. Joining Smith and Caldwell were guard Michael Johnson, drafted by Atlanta in the third round in 2010, and Marlon Davis, who spent time in the New York Jets’ camp.

Florida finally stopped Alabama, 31-20, in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta, then went on to win the national championship.

“That was disappointing,” Smith said of the loss to the Gators. “We didn’t execute on both sides of the ball. I was happy for (Florida winning the national title), because they represented the SEC.”

Winning the Outland Trophy didn’t change Smith’s personality.

“A lot of times with success, sometimes they tend to get into more stuff, a little trouble here and there,” Caldwell said. “With the amount of attention that (Smith) got, and his success he had, he never really got into that.”

After losing to Florida, Alabama was sent to the Sugar Bowl to face Utah. Bad matchup. The fact that Smith wasn’t allowed to play made it worse.

Saban suspended Smith just a couple of days before the Sugar Bowl. No official reason was given. There were rumors that Smith had dealings with an agent. Smith denied it.

“It had nothing to do with an agent,” he insisted. “That’s just people throwing stuff against the wall. It’s in the past. It’s over with. I love Coach Saban and the University of Alabama.”      

Utah jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and whipped the Tide, 31-17.

Javier Arenas returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to slice Utah’s lead to 21-10 by halftime. But Alabama never caught up.     

Smith’s absence was quite evident.

“You spend a month preparing for a bowl game with him there, then you find out he’s not going to be there, that was definitely tough,” said Caldwell. “We found out a day or two days before that he wasn’t going to be able to play. We did (miss him). After the first drive, our left guard, Michael Johnson, went down with a high ankle sprain. We were playing with two freshmen off the bench.”

Smith watched the game on TV at home.

“It was extremely hard (watching),” he said. “I was excited when we scored, when Javier took it back. I didn’t focus on whether they missed me. I missed them. I just wanted Alabama to win.”

After only three years of college, Cincinnati took Smith in the first round of the 2009 draft, the sixth pick overall.

Smith, who took courses in the summer, left school only 15 hours short of his degree in finance. He credited academic advisor John Dever and his staff for keeping him on his pace.

“As a high school guy you dream about going three years,” said Smith. “I want to be an entrepreneur, own my own business, own property, get involved in real estate.”

He took a wiser-than-many attitude into the NFL.

“It’s a means for me,” he said of pro football. “I wanted to do something in life I love. What better way to get paid.”

Outland Tropy history: Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, LSU, 2007 recipient

This is the second in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006-2020.  From 1946-2005, the first 60 of 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.  

(Defensive Tackle Glenn Dorsey was the FWAA’s second All-America who claimed both the Nagurski and Outland trophies in the same season. The LSU star was selected fifth overall in the 2008 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. He played five seasons for the Chiefs and four for the San Francisco 49ers. He will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame later this year (2021).  

By Gene Duffey, Author

Glenn Dorsey was not born to be a great athlete. In fact, he wasn’t born to be an athlete at all.

When other kids started playing games, Dorsey could only watch. He couldn’t run. He even had trouble walking. Dorsey, who would win the Outland Trophy as a defensive tackle at LSU in 2007, wanted to join the fun.

“I had a lot of energy,” he said. But he couldn’t do anything with it. “I had to sit on the porch and watch everybody else run around and play hide-and-go-seek.

“I was extremely bow legged. My toes pointed at each other. They made some special type of braces to straighten my legs.”

His mother, Sandra, knew the problem with her son’s legs was only temporary. “I knew he’d be able to do the normal things,” she said. “I just didn’t think he’d be able to accomplish what he did.”

Dorsey wore leg braces for two years. It only made him more determined to catch up – and pass – the other kids when he finally started running.

“I think that helped me become the person I am today, having adversity at a young age,” he said. “I wanted to show the whole world, you can’t let anything get you down.”

When Dorsey began running, there was little doubt in which direction he would go. All the males in his family played sports. “Football is a tradition in my family,” he said.

Dorsey’s father, Glenn Sr., played football in high school. But he grew up in a huge family, which limited his opportunities in sports. When Glenn Sr.’s mother had to take in her sister’s kids, putting 18 children under one roof, Glenn Sr. gave up football to help take care of the younger kids.

Glenn Jr. couldn’t wait to play football. His cousin, Jason Delmore, had played fullback and nose guard at LSU in 1987. Glenn wanted to be just like him.

His first opportunity to play organized football happened in first grade, playing guard for the St. Amant Wildcats. Unfortunately, the Wildcats weren’t very wild. Dorsey almost never played and the team didn’t win a game. It proved to be an inauspicious introduction to his favorite sport.

Next year the team and Dorsey improved dramatically. The Wildcats went undefeated and won their version of the Super Bowl. Dorsey, playing fullback and linebacker, was named MVP. He scored a two-point conversion and intercepted a pass.

Several years later Dorsey watched a tape of that championship game. “Watching back on film, I didn’t block anybody,” he laughed. “Man, what was I doing?”

Dorsey soon began playing against older kids because of weight limits.

There were tough times in the family. Glenn became close with an uncle, Daniel Douglas, his father’s brother.

Douglas was a big man and a body builder. He used to take Glenn to the gym with him and back to his house for ice cream. Douglas died Christmas Eve 1989 in an explosion at the Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge.  Glenn was 4 at the time.

“It was the first time I ever saw my father cry,” said Glenn. “It was hard on (my Dad). But we pulled together as a family.”

Dorsey attended East Ascension High School, his Dad’s alma mater. School came as easily to him as football.

“School was fun,” he said. “I always enjoyed going to school. My Mom never had a problem waking me up. Every day was an adventure.”

“He was always asking a lot of questions,” recalled Sandra Dorsey. “He needed to know everything.”

Dorsey played on the junior varsity as a freshman at East Ascension, lining up at guard and center on offense and nose guard on defense. He even kicked off and kicked field goals.

By his sophomore season at East Ascension, Dorsey stood 5-11, weighed 260 pounds with solid legs. He started at defensive tackle on the varsity.

His junior year proved to be a disappointment. His team went 5-5, losing several close games, often on missed extra points. That turned around his senior year. East Ascension went 10-2, losing in the state quarterfinals.

When Dorsey began following college football he quickly developed into a Florida State fan. He liked Charlie Ward, who won the Heisman Trophy and quarterbacked the Seminoles to the national championship in 1993.

He liked fullback Pooh Bear Williams and halfback Warrick Dunn, who was from Baton Rouge.

By his junior year of high school, the recruiting letters began piling up at the Dorsey home. His interest in Florida State had begun to wane.

“All the guys I liked at Florida State had left,” he said. “LSU was doing some great things. I’m kind of a homebody. I didn’t want to move away from my family. I’d be playing for my state, in my hometown. LSU was one of the top programs in the country, and it was right in my backyard.”

LSU won the national championship in 2003, beating Oklahoma, 21-14, in the championship game.

Dorsey committed to the Tigers in his junior year. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Michigan, Michigan State and most of the SEC schools tried to recruit him. But LSU was the only official visit he made.

“I probably should have taken some other visits just for fun,” he said. “But it was LSU, LSU. I didn’t really give anybody else a chance.”

LSU coach Nick Saban visited Dorsey at East Ascension. “I was so nervous, the Nick Saban, the big-time coach,” said Dorsey. “He offered me a scholarship the next morning.”

Dorsey arrived at LSU as one of the big names in the recruiting class, which didn’t give him much clout with Saban.

“He was a real intense guy,” said Dorsey. “He never sugar coated anything. He got me a lot of times. They threw me in with the second team right away. I’d mess up and he’d get on me. How does he expect me to know this stuff? He was the Commander in Chief. But he’s a great coach, a great leader.”

Dorsey made an immediate impact for the Tigers. In the first quarter of the opener against Oregon State, in the rain, Dorsey forced a fumble on his very first collegiate play.

“This is cool,” he thought. “I can get used to this. But I knew there was a lot of hard work to be done. I made a lot of mistakes. Coach Saban’s defense was so complicated, we had so many checks. Every game was tough, there was so much I had to learn. Watching film wasn’t fun the next day.”

When Saban left for the NFL after the season, LSU hired Les Miles from Oklahoma State to replace him.

The choice of Miles thrilled Dorsey. Miles had tried to recruit him out of high school. “It was like a reunion,” he said. “He’s kind of a player’s coach. He’s not going to come up and curse you out, but he gets his point across.”

Miles even instituted a Unity Council for the players. “He changed things because of what we said,” said Dorsey.

Dorsey started only one game his sophomore season. But he played behind two excellent defensive tackles in Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten, both of whom went on to play in the NFL.

In the third game of the season Dorsey made nine tackles in a 37-7 victory at Mississippi State. “It let me know I could do some things here,” he said. 

Williams and Wroten were gone by the then. Dorsey became a junior and Bo Pelini had arrived as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. It didn’t take Pelini long to realize he had a special player at defensive tackle.

“About practice one,” said Pelini, who went on to become the coach at Nebraska. “Just the way he went about his business, his explosion. Obviously, he had the physical attributes. But just the way he carried himself. How he practiced. He never took a play off. Dorsey’s work ethic was second to none.”

Dorsey became an instant leader as a junior. “It was natural,” he said. “Everybody looked up to me in high school. I was forced into the position. I embraced it. I learned from two great guys (Williams and Wroten).”

“It comes from with inside the heart,” Pelini said of Dorsey.
“He’s a tremendous inspirational guy to all his teammates. Everybody rallies around him. He loves to play football. It’s fun for him. He likes what he’s doing and it’s contagious. He’s a special guy. He’s a throwback. I’ve never heard him complain about anything.

“He’s a guy you didn’t have to worry about in the classroom. The last three years he’s been special. He’ll be successful in anything he does. It’s gentlemen like him that makes you want to coach. He’ll be a part of my family forever.”

Dorsey developed an affinity for playing at Tiger Stadium.

“I loved it,” he said. “Our fans are superb. It’s an unbelievable feeling, like no other. It’s a rush. That’s what makes playing for LSU so special. I wish I had the opportunity to go through the whole tailgating thing. Friday morning we’d see (the fans) putting up the tents.”  

Dorsey could have left for the NFL after his junior year. Undoubtedly, he would have been drafted in the first round. Wisely, he decided to come back for his senior season.

“It wasn’t that tough (a decision),” he said. “I talked to my parents, a lot of guys, I prayed about it. Even when I got hurt early in the season, I never second guessed myself. I loved the college experience.”

His mother seconded Dorsey’s decision.

“We talked about it a long time,” said Sandra. “I wanted him to stay, get an education, enjoy it and mature a little more. I have faith and believe things work out for the best.”

They did.

LSU lost two games in 2007, Dorsey’s senior year, both in triple overtime. Somehow the Tigers still managed to qualify for the BCS title game and beat Ohio State, 38-24, to win the national championship at the Louisiana Superdome.

“The whole week was unbelievable,” said Dorsey. “The city of New Orleans embraced us. I was 100 percent. I got to run around like myself.”

In the eighth game of the season, against Auburn, Dorsey said he had injured his knee when hit by a chop block. “It scared me more than anything,” he said. “All this can be taken away from you.”

Fortunately for Dorsey, the Tigers had a bye the next week before facing Alabama. “I probably shouldn’t have played, but I’m stubborn,” he said. “I was basically playing on one leg. I was in pain the whole time, but it was all worth it in the end.”

LSU beat Alabama, 41-34.

Dorsey couldn’t take watching from the sideline. He had been hurt in camp and again against Middle Tennessee in the third game of the season, an easy 44-0 LSU victory. To avoid the risk of further injury, Pelini pulled him from the game.

“He kept fighting and fighting to get back on the field,” recalled Pelini. “I told him, ‘Glenn, you’re done for the day.’ ” Later in the game a trainer suggested to Pelini that they take him out of the game. Pelini told the trainer that Dorsey was already out of the game and wouldn’t be going back. The trainer pointed to Dorsey – who was still on the field.

“Coach, I just wanted one more series,” Dorsey explained to Pelini

The knee bothered him the rest of the regular season, but he was ready to go for the national championship game. The Tigers started slowly. Ohio State’s Beanie Wells broke off a 65-yard touchdown run on the first possession of the game. “We got caught up in the wrong defense,” said Dorsey.

LSU didn’t make many mistakes after that.

“We didn’t make any dumb penalties,” said Dorsey. “Everybody was bragging on the Ohio State defense. Our offense moved the ball up and down the field. (After the game) I just went numb. To call yourself national champions. To go down in school history.”

Dorsey said he didn’t sleep at all that night, partying with his family in the French Quarter.

A few months later the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Dorsey with the fifth pick in the first round.

Outland Trophy history: Offensive tackle Joe Thomas, Wisconsin, 2006 recipient

This is the first in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006-2020.  From 1946-2005, the first 60 of 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.  

(Offensive Tackle Joe Thomas played 11 seasons in the National Football League (2007-2017) – ­all with the Cleveland Browns. Considered one of the best linemen in college and NFL history, Thomas went to the Pro Bowl 10 times before retiring following the 2017 season. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2019.)  

By Gene Duffey, Author

Wisconsin was rolling again during the 2006 football season. The Badgers, after a loss at Michigan, had ripped Indiana 52-17 on the road.

Offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who would win the Outland Trophy that year, and his teammates were in a good mood returning to Madison. He shared a house with two other players, cornerback Ben Strickland and deep snapper Steve Johnson.

The trio had been teammates in high school at Brookfield, Wis., about an hour away. The fourth member of their group, Luke Homan, had gone to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he played basketball for two years, then transferred to Wisconsin-La Crosse.

It was the last weekend of September. There had been an Oktoberfest party in La Crosse and the three Wisconsin players received word that Homan was missing.

“Nobody had heard from him,” said Thomas. “We went up there Sunday morning and spent the whole day looking for him.”

By Sunday night the police brought in the dogs to search for Homan. They traced his scent to the river.

“It kind of hit you,” said Thomas. The three buddies would never see their close friend again. Monday morning police divers found Homan’s body in the river.

Homan and Thomas lived only five minutes apart in Brookfield. They attended different schools but began playing on the same basketball team in third grade. Homan’s father was their coach.

“Losing such a good friend at such a young age was tough,” said Thomas. “I’d never gone through tragedy in my life. (Luke) was an only child. I was close with his parents.”

The funeral was Thursday. Wisconsin’s coaches understood how hard   Homan’s death hit Thomas. They allowed their All-American left tackle to practice only one day that week in preparing for the game with Northwestern.

Saturday provided Thomas with a little relief. For a few hours he was able to focus on football. Wisconsin won, 41-9. The games the rest of the season allowed him to keep everything together.

“It was a great way to get your mind off (Homan’s death) and refocus,” said Thomas.

Virtually everything else went right for Joe Thomas in 2006. Wisconsin never lost again after the Michigan game, concluding the season 12-1 by beating Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl.

Thomas dominated the Big Ten opponents who lined up across from him.

“There is not going to be another Joe Thomas, so you better appreciate him while you’ve got him,” said Paul Chryst, then Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator and now its head coach. “To never have to worry about that side (of the line).”

Joe Thomas, Wisconsin

Getting ready for that senior year took some extra effort by Thomas. He suffered a torn ACL in a bowl victory over Auburn at the end of his junior year – playing defense!

Wisconsin lost two defensive ends before the bowl and desperately needed help at the position. Thomas volunteered.

He had played defensive end in high school and actually started there as a true freshman in the Music City Bowl, also against Auburn. Now, two years later, he was back on the defensive side of the ball.

“I practiced about 10 plays every day on defense,” he said. “It came natural. It was so much fun during one-on-one pass rushes, going against my offensive linemates.”

The Badgers used Thomas on offense and defense in the bowl game.

“I had some good plays and was really getting excited about playing defense again,” he said. “About the sixth play (on defense) I was pursuing Kenny Irons. I had to stop and kind of veer. I felt my knee go a way my knee never went before.”

Thomas was done for the day. But Wisconsin won 24-10.

A doctor told him it was probably a torn ACL in the right knee. He watched the rest of the game propped up against a big trunk with ice on the knee. “I tried to cheer on my teammates,” he said. “Eric VandenHeuvel (a true freshman) came in and played great for me.”

Thomas underwent surgery Jan. 19 and rehabbed 2 ½-3 hours a day. He had competed for the track team, throwing the shot and discus, his first two years at Wisconsin. He missed both track season and spring practice that year, working his knee back into shape.

“It was long, but wasn’t that hard,” he said of the rehab process. “I treated it like practices. There were a few tough days. In the middle I was kind of frustrated.”

“There were a lot of unknowns,” Chryst said of Thomas’ injury. “He had to go through a lot of rehabbing. Nothing Joe does surprises you.”

When fall camp started in August, Thomas was ready to play, although he usually sat out the afternoon workout during two-a-days. “I was full go in the scrimmages,” he said.

Thomas inherited some of his football talent from his father, Eric, who had played in high school but had his career ended by a knee injury.

Joe first tried organized football in seventh grade, starting out as a fullback. He moved to defensive end and tight end for eighth grade.  

He never played offensive tackle until his senior year at Central High in Brookfield.  

“The natural position for me was always defensive end,” he said. “I was good at defense from the beginning. It took me a while to learn offense. I got a lot of passes at tight end.”

Although he hadn’t yet found a home at offensive tackle, everyone from USC to Miami began recruiting Thomas his junior year. “By (then) I knew football was going to be my ticket,” he said.

Coaches liked his athleticism. Thomas also played basketball in high school and became an all-state selection.

“He was a high profile recruit,” said Chryst. “You knew he was a heck of a basketball player, phenomenal in track. But to achieve what he did (in football), I don’t think you put that on any kid.”

Thomas took official visits to Virginia Tech, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, as well as Wisconsin. He made two unofficial visits to Notre Dame.

“At the beginning I was sold on going away to college,” he said.

When decision time neared, Thomas figured it would be Wisconsin or Notre Dame. He had grown up a Badgers fan.

The Wisconsin coaches believed that Thomas could be an outstanding offensive tackle. But they weren’t going to lose him based on position.

“We want you to come here and want you to play tight end, defensive end, offensive tackle, wherever you want to play,” they told him. Thomas was like the gorilla who turns into a house pet. He can sleep anywhere he wants.

Track still factored into the equation.

He competed in the shot put and discus his first two years at Wisconsin, part of the deal when he was recruited. “I missed quite a few spring practices and meetings,” said Thomas. But he finished second in the in the shot at the Big Ten Indoor and Outdoor Meets as a sophomore.

“Joe’s extremely bright,” said Chryst. “He could see through a lot of the recruiting BS. He wanted to compete in track and football. (Coach Barry) Alvarez and the track coach worked out a schedule for him ahead of time (so that he could play both sports). Joe knew it was a good fit for him.”

Thomas began his college career working out as an offensive tackle.

He practiced there most of his freshman year. He played a little that season, occasionally pulling a No. 82 jersey over his regular No. 72 so that he could line up as a second tight end in Wisconsin’s Jumbo Offense.

“He never redshirted,” said Bret Bielema, who became the Wisconsin head coach for Thomas’ senior season. “He was a natural guy.”

Starting defensive end Darius Jones was injured in the last game of the regular season in 2003, Thomas’ freshman year. The Badgers backups weren’t very big and they needed help on the defensive line to face Auburn in the Music City Bowl. Thomas moved to the other side of the ball.

“In high school I was a really good at defensive end,” he said. “I went over for a practice and was kind of an instant hit.” 

Thomas started the bowl game and made seven tackles, but the Badgers couldn’t stop Auburn running backs Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams. Wisconsin lost, 28-14.

He returned to offense in the spring and started at left tackle in the opener of his sophomore year against Central Florida.

“I was the rookie,” he said. “Dan Buenning was the left guard and he was my mentor. ‘Don’t worry kid, I’ll tell you what to do,’ ” Buenning told him.

“I did play pretty well,” Thomas said of the opener, a 34-6 Wisconsin victory. “I didn’t make any big mistakes or give up any sacks.”

Soon the coaches realized they had somebody special at left tackle.

“People said it, but I don’t know if I believed it,” said Thomas. “I never believed the hype.”

Wisconsin fielded an outstanding front four at the time, led by defensive end Erasmus James, a finalist for the 2004 Lombardi Trophy. All four of the defensive linemen went on to the NFL. “I got to practice against those guys every day and it really elevated my game,” said Thomas.

The Badgers finished the season 9-2 and faced Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Thomas lined up against David Pollack, the Bulldogs’ All-American defensive end.

“I knew all the awards he was up for that year,” said Thomas. “I really made it a point to study him. I played outstanding. By the end of the (first) half they moved him to the other side because I was handling him.”

Georgia won, but Thomas was anything but a loser.

He started every game at left tackle as a junior in 2005. He was told before the bowl game that he would probably be one of the top 10 players taken in NFL Draft, if he considered leaving college a year early.

“His junior year you knew he was an elite athlete,” said Chryst. “He was obviously gifted, but he was a hard worker with competitive desire. He’s ultra competitive. He wanted to be the best, and not in a bragadocchia way. He critiques himself.”

Luckily for the Badgers he decided to stay. Wisconsin recruited another offensive tackle from Cottage Grove, Wis. that year. Gabe Carimi redshirted in Thomas’ senior year, studied the All-American and followed him at left tackle in 2007.

Carimi went on to win the Outland Trophy in 2010.

Coach Barry Alvarez announced before the 2005 season, which was Thomas’ junior year, that this would be his final season coaching the Badgers before becoming the school’s full-time athletic director. What bothered Thomas most was that after the season, Wisconsin’s offensive line coach, Jim Huber, announced that he would be leaving too, to become an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings.

 “I was really sad about it,” said Thomas. “If I hadn’t hurt my knee, this might have affected my decision to (apply for the draft). I didn’t have the option of going to the NFL at that point. You never know how you’re going to get along with the new coach.”

Bob Palcic came from the New Orleans Saints to replace Huber and coach the offensive line. He had coached 1995 Outland Trophy winner Jonathan Ogden at UCLA.   

“It ended up working out great,” said Thomas. “We kept the same offensive coordinator and a lot of the same blocking schemes.”

Bret Bielema, Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, was promoted to coach, succeeding Alvarez.

“The thing I loved about Joe is he came to compete every day,” said Bielema. “He’s very intelligent. A very gifted person. When Joe spoke people listened. There’s only one Joe Thomas.”

Thomas admitted to being a little tentative beginning his senior year because of the torn ACL from the bowl game.

“I kind of fought with (the mental part) the first couple of games because you don’t trust your knee,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the knee.”

Wisconsin faced Michigan in its Big Ten opener at Ann Arbor. The Wolverines, who featured three outstanding defensive ends, including 2006 Lombardi Award winner LaMarr Woodley, won, 27-13. But Thomas regained confidence in his knee.

“I didn’t think about it (after that),” he said. “I wasn’t worried about anyone falling on it.”

The Michigan game was Wisconsin’s only loss of the season.

Ohio State, which wasn’t on Wisconsin’s schedule that year, went undefeated in the regular season before losing to Florida in the national championship game.

“I don’t think anybody thought we’d go 12-1,” said Thomas. “I think most of the season we did get underrated. We had the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country in our conference.”

The Badgers were matched against Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando. They weren’t afraid of playing another SEC team after beating Auburn the year before.

“We had heard how great Arkansas was,” said Thomas. “It was the same situation the year before. Auburn definitely overlooked us.”

No one overlooked Joe Thomas when he became the No. 3 pick in the 2007 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns.