‘Genius’ Urschel steps up to line for Penn State

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.”

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,” said a smiling Urschel,
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.

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Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP