Penn State's Urschel wise beyond field
Fifth-year senior speaks softly, leads Nittany Lions by example
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — John Urschel has been labeled many things by the Penn State Nittany Lions. Some call him a genius with a mean streak. Others simply know him as a burly offensive lineman working on a second master's degree in math.
And now, maybe more important to the team overall, the soft-spoken guard has emerged as an unlikely — but ideal — leader in Happy Valley as Penn State opens preseason camp.
All in a day's work.
"He's a very, grounded young man, levelheaded. He's certainly prioritized his life right," offensive line coach Mac McWhorter said. "He's not a guy who craves a lot of flattery ... His idea of relaxing is much different [from everybody else]."
The big guys up front usually don't attract the notoriety that players like wideout Allen Robinson do. Robinson, an affable junior, led the Big Ten in receiving last season. But when it came time to taking players to conference media days in Chicago last month, Urschel was the only offensive player to go for Penn State.
"I think everybody knows by now he's a genius," Robinson said during a charity event in the offseason. And left tackle Donovan Smith even jokingly refers to Urschel, who boasts a perfect 4.0 GPA, as "Einstein."
|3.||Penn State||Michigan State|
|* Overall champion, as selected by media.|
Either way, it was back to work Monday after second-year coach Bill O'Brien whistled the first preseason practice into session at dawn. The top priority is to settle on a starting quarterback between junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and touted freshman Christian Hackenberg.
Keeping the team healthy and conditioned is also especially important with O'Brien coping with a downsized scholarship roster approaching 65 — the limit mandated by the NCAA by 2014 for four seasons as part of sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. That means more reliance on walk-on players to fill depth, such as the perilously-thin linebacker corps.
Up front, beyond the transition to a new center, the team appears to be in relatively good shape this preseason with experienced players returning led by Urschel, a fifth-year senior.
The 6-foot-4 Urschel had dropped about seven pounds in the offseason from his 2012 listed weight of 307. McWhorter likes his flexibility and calls him one of the strongest players on the team — a nice combination to have for guards who must pull on running plays and hold up against blitzes.
"He's not that vocal, but I say he definitely has leadership inside the huddle," Robinson said. "He's looked at a lot by players by how he studies film and the fire he brings to practice."
That attitude was evident during an outdoor conditioning workout during a cold early morning in February. The workout ended with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald pitting offensive against defensive players in a one-on-one, tug of war-type contest. The winner was the first player to pull the makeshift contraption — and his opponent — to a respective finish line about 10 yards away.
"OK, I want the biggest, baddest" player on each side, yelled Fitzgerald, using colorful language. Before Fitzgerald could finish his sentence, Urschel emerged from the offensive pack and stomped to the middle of the circle with a crazed look as if a gladiator ready to do battle. He easily beat his defensive opponent.
"That epitomizes his leadership. ... John is not a rah-rah guy," McWhorter said in a recent interview. "His forte is leadership by example."
"When someone asks 'Who wants to rep the offense?' Boom, John's out there."
Smith remembers first meeting Urschel in downtown State College while on a recruiting visit. He called the chance encounter "pretty awkward" at first.
"He just figured I was just a big guy on campus and figured out I was a recruit. He stopped and talked to me, and basically just told me what I had to do before I came in," Smith said. "Not a lot of people will just walk up to you like that. ... They say first impressions are key."
Urschel is so respected he was asked to deliver an address on behalf of Big Ten players two weeks ago at the conference's luncheon. It was an honor that went to well-known quarterbacks the previous two seasons.
"I'm not nearly as eloquent as [Michigan State's] Kirk Cousins, nor as charismatic as [Michigan's] Denard Robinson, but I'll do my best. I took a course in public speaking my sophomore year, but unfortunately for me it was online," a smiling Urschel said, looking knowingly at the approving audience as if a comedian seeking applause.
Wearing a dark suit, the bearded Urschel appeared as if he could easily slip out to talk at a calculus conference. During the spring, he taught a section of a trigonometry-and-analytic geometry class three days a week. His bio lists him as doing research on "multigrid methods" and computational mathematics.
He told the audience that players should have four goals: To master the craft of being a football player; to get involved with the community; to help younger players; and to prepare for life after the game.
"Because our football careers are so short, and our lives hopefully long, planning and preparing for a life without football is the most important of these four goals," he said, "but also the easiest to neglect."
Urschel plans to pursue a doctorate and teach when he's done on the field.