‘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