Penn State guard John Urschel, a straight-A student, brings his smarts to the field

Penn State guard John Urschel is usually the brightest player on the field: He got his math degree in three years and does brainteasers before kickoffs.
Penn State guard John Urschel is usually the brightest player on the field: He got his math degree in three years and does brainteasers before kickoffs.
Posted: October 21, 2012

Penn State guard John Urschel usually is the smartest guy in the room, and we're not just talking about the Nittany Lions' locker room.

Urschel graduated last May with a 4.0 grade-point average in math, and he did it in three years. The courses he took in his last semester included linear algebra and numerical analysis. He has done research on celestial mechanics and graph partitioning and multigrid, something that's way more complicated than deciphering X's and O's.

His classroom achievements have floored his coach, Bill O'Brien, who also likes his thoughtful nature and the fact he's a good football player who is getting better week after week.

"I'm really very impressed with John Urschel, what a fantastic kid," O'Brien said last week. "He's a great guy to be around. That's why you want a job like this, because you have a chance to coach and be around guys like that.

"He graded out at 90 percent in the Illinois game [on Sept. 29]. He's just a tough guy, has great flexibility, very smart, very instinctive. He's really just what Penn State is all about. We are happy with the way he's playing, and we are really lucky that we have him for another year."

The 6-foot-3, 307-pound Urschel, a redshirt junior, said academics - with his mother, an attorney, and his father, a surgeon - came before sports or anything else while growing up in Williamsville, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo.

"I had played lacrosse and some other things," he said. "But first and foremost, my mother made sure that academics were first. I don't think it was even close."

Urschel brings the discipline, intelligence, and focus that it takes to succeed in the classroom to the football field.

Offensive line coach Mac McWhorter said Urschel, whom he called "a treat to coach," is interesting to watch in the meeting room.

"John approaches everything with great seriousness," McWhorter said. "His academics obviously are very important to him, and he is totally focused when he is doing that. I wish you could see him when he's in my office. He is totally focused, taking notes, asking questions, really into it. When he's on the field, he's exactly the same way.

"There's a time and place for everything, and John, like everybody, likes to cut up a little bit, but not much. I think he's really focused on everything he does."

That includes brainteasers, a series of problems he works out in the locker room before the game, an idea introduced to him by Miles Dieffenbach, the Lions guard on the left side.

"Miles just told me that it was something he'd give me to warm me up for the game," Urschel said. "I had to laugh when he said it, but it was just warming my brain up, getting my brain ready for game day."

Urschel said Dieffenbach had some good ones for him before the Illinois game, "but I think I brought my 'A' game."

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Urschel didn't start playing football until the ninth grade. He said he took up the new sport "as a good way to make friends" as he was transitioning into a new high school.

While he enjoyed the new friends, Urschel wasn't exactly showered with offers as he wound down his high school career. He appeared to be ticketed for the Ivy League before Penn State began showing interest, a development that boosted his confidence.

"In high school, as a football player, no one really ever told me I could go anywhere or I could ever do much of anything," he said. "No one really set high expectations for me. No one really thought I was capable of playing Division I football or big-time football. So being able to play at Penn State was a huge thing for me coming out of high school."

Although he did not start as a sophomore, Urschel lined up for 396 snaps. In the spring and preseason, he showed the new coaching staff that he could do an effective job on an offensive line with only one returning starter.

It has worked out for him on a line that has improved individually and collectively each week.

"His intensity level on the field has been really good," McWhorter said, "and he is really a good football player."

Contact Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or, or follow on Twitter @joejulesinq.

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