WILLIAMSBURG, Ia. Brandon Scherff drove his silver Chevy pickup down a dirt path, passing a “No Fishing” sign as he pulled up to an Iowa County farm pond.
“Yeah, right,” Scherff said.
This was not an act of defiance. Iowa’s 6-foot-5, 320-pound left offensive tackle is a welcome guest at this pond, on land owned by the family of teammate Austin Blythe. Fishing takes a backseat to nothing, not even football, in Scherff’s world.
If things go as many expect, this grounded 22-year-old from Denison will make a big splash when the NFL Draft unfolds next spring. Scherff is projected as a high first-round pick. He’s even been floated in some circles as the No. 1 pick. He’s an all-America candidate. And he has a realistic chance of becoming Iowa’s fourth winner of the Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation’s best interior lineman.
Unlike today’s me-first, Johnny Football chest-pumping world, Scherff would rather lay low and try to hook as many largemouth bass and crappies as he can than discuss his NFL future.
“The best feeling in the world is when you set your hook, and your line doesn’t even move,” Scherff said. “Like that …”
Moments later, he brings a slab-sized crappie into a boat he shares this July morning with Blythe, Iowa’s center, and right tackle Andrew Donnal. Together, they make up three-fifths of an offensive line the Big Ten Network ranks as the best in the 14-team conference.
Scherff appreciates, but doesn’t hunger for, the glowing accolades he hears.
“I’ve just got to focus on trying to get better each day,” Scherff said.
But the serenity of an Iowa farm pond? Now that’s something to talk about.
“It’s relaxing,” said Scherff, who got hooked on fishing when his dad, Bob, took him as a youngster. “Just being outside. You get your mind off everything.”
Dave Wiebers was Denison-Schleswig’s high school football coach. He heard about a third-grader named Brandon Scherff who was the biggest kid in his class.
When Scherff grew to a 250-pound high school sophomore, Wiebers made him his starting varsity quarterback.
Later that school year, Iowa assistant football coach Reese Morgan saw Scherff compete for the first time — in the shot put at the state track meet in Des Moines.
Scherff was in a duel with Drew Clark of Marion, another future Hawkeye, for the Class 3-A state title. Scherff won on his last throw.
Morgan was impressed with Scherff’s power, the way he competed and the effortless way he carried himself for someone so big. Morgan asked Wiebers for film on Scherff.
“I thought, ‘What the heck are you doing playing him at quarterback?’ ” Morgan recalled. “(Wiebers) said, ‘He’s the best quarterback we have.’ ”
Scherff was moved to tight end as a junior, when Iowa started recruiting him in earnest.
At that point, Morgan had a message for Wiebers: “We are not recruiting him as a tight end or a skilled athlete. He’s being recruited as a left tackle. That’s his position.”
Scherff moved to the line as a senior. By that time, Iowa, Nebraska, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri had offered scholarships. Stanford asked to come in for a visit, but Scherff told them to save their time.
“He wants to be on a farm pond when he can,” Wiebers said. “And that’s probably not going to happen at Stanford.”
When Ferentz or Morgan visited, their itinerary included trips to the bus barn. Bob Scherff is the director of transportation for the Denison school district.
Morgan can still smell the bus exhaust fumes.
“They just seemed really genuine, and they cared about Brandon,” said his mom, Cindy, an elementary school teacher.
That pitch lured the Hawkeyes a big fish of their own.
Scherff skipped his senior season of high school baseball to get a start in the weight room at Iowa, where he’s become a legend five years later under strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle.
On Monday, Scherff set records in the hang-clean lift. He maxed out at 480 pounds, and did three reps of 443 pounds.
But when fall camp opened in 2010, Scherff was the new kid who got sand kicked in his face.
“I went against (Adrian) Clayborn, (Christian) Ballard, (Broderick) Binns, (Mike) Daniels, (Karl) Klug,” Scherff said. “You figured out how much faster and stronger those guys were. It was hard. That was the hardest camp I’ve had. But it made me better.”
After a redshirt season, Scherff played in 11 games at left guard in 2011, including his first three career starts. He was moved to left tackle in 2012. But in the seventh game, against Penn State, he broke his leg and dislocated an ankle.
He returned last season to start all 13 games. He was named first-team all-Big Ten and Iowa’s most valuable player on offense.
The buzz built. ESPN’s NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper listed Scherff as the top run-blocker available in the 2014 draft, a first-round pick.
Instead, Scherff turned down the probable millions for a senior season at Iowa.
Why did he come back to Iowa City? Here’s the secret.
“Austin said I could still fish here,” Scherff said.
In truth, Scherff had made up his mind before Iowa’s 2013 regular season ended with a rout of Nebraska in Lincoln. Joined by his parents and one of his two sisters, Scherff met with Ferentz and his son Brian, Iowa’s offensive line coach, on Dec. 8. He told the Ferentzes he was coming back.
“We really didn’t know until he met with his coaches,” Cindy said.
The first teammate Scherff told was Blythe, who thought it might be a practical joke.
“It’s kind of hard to tell with Scherff,” Blythe said.
Kirk Ferentz said he had encouraged Scherff to do what was best for him.
“He made it for the right reasons,” Ferentz said. “And the reasons that prompted that decision give me confidence that he’s thinking about the right things now. He’s not trying to be some big man or anything. He just wants to be a great player at Iowa.”
Scherff’s decision to stay in Iowa City has turned up the volume from others when his name comes up.
Brian Ferentz was adamant during spring ball that there isn’t a better offensive lineman in college football. He added that if Scherff doesn’t get the proper recognition, “it would be a real travesty.”
Even the dean of Big Ten coaches, who typically is reserved in his rhetoric, is speaking up.
“I will not be bashful with my comments about him,” Kirk Ferentz said, “when I get the opportunity.”
Scherff didn’t hold a news conference to announce his return. Instead, he made it public on radio station KDSN in Denison.
“You’ve got to remember where you’re from,” Scherff said.
Scherff speaks with an economy of words — a tackle who is guarded in what he says.
“He’s always been like that,” Cindy said.
When Scherff returns home, Wiebers notices his former-player-turned-celebrity still has time for everyone, young and old.
“No matter what happens five or six years from now, he’s probably had as big an impact on youth and our school as anyone in the last 20 to 30 years, if not longer,” Wiebers said. “He’s the same kid who walked out of these doors when he graduated from high school.”
Morgan called Scherff humble, quiet and a team player.
“It almost seems too good to be true,” Morgan said. “He’s really a throwback, because he’s not into the media, he’s not into video games, he’s not about himself. What you see is really who he is.”
Until he puts on his helmet.
“When you talk to him and watch him on the field, it’s hard to imagine it’s the same guy,” Morgan said.
That’s because Scherff plays with a mean streak.
“I like working with four other guys trying to beat down another team at the line of scrimmage,” Scherff said. “Just to move people against their will. I love hitting people, and trying to win as a team.”
In addition to fishing, Scherff also loves to hunt, whether it’s with a shotgun or a bow. You name it: Deer, turkey, pheasants, coyotes.
His dream trip is shooting wild boar out of a helicopter in Texas.
“They’ve got a wild hog problem there,” Scherff said. “I’ve seen it on TV, and I’ve always wanted to do it.”
Scherff’s next stop, though, isn’t Texas. He’ll be one of three Hawkeye players featured at Big Ten Media Days, which are Monday and Tuesday in Chicago.
He didn’t have to be there. He could’ve been in an NFL training camp.
Instead, Ferentz thinks Scherff delayed his pro entry because he wanted to go down in history as one of the best to ever play at Iowa.
“And not only in the line position,” the 16th-year Iowa coach clarified.
To be an all-time great at Iowa would be saying something. On the offensive line alone since 2004, Ferentz pupils Reilly Reiff, Bryan Bulaga and Robert Gallery have been drafted in the NFL’s first round.
“That’s how he thinks, and how he works,” Ferentz said. “He’s a guy that’s really determined to be a great, great player.”
Morgan compares Scherff’s attitude to that of former Iowa player Marshal Yanda, now one of the NFL’s elite offensive guards with the Baltimore Ravens.
“I want to be the best offensive tackle in the nation,” Scherff said. “The best player I possibly can be. And I want to do something we’ve never done as a team. Everyone wants to win a Big Ten championship. We haven’t done that in a while.”
When the Hawkeyes open the 2014 season against Northern Iowa on Aug. 30 at Kinnick Stadium, Scherff will lead Iowa in a march that he hopes will lead to the school’s first Big Ten title in a decade.
He also can begin cementing his legacy as one of Iowa’s all-time greats.
On the dashboard of Scherff’s pickup is a poker chip that reads “All In.” It was given to all members of Iowa’s Leadership Group. And it serves as a daily reminder that this is his last year to do something in an Iowa uniform.
“We have to prove what we’re all about this year,” Scherff said. “Then we can talk, hopefully, about what we did after the season. We’ve just got to worry about ourselves and take it one game at a time. One fish at a time, boys.”