Big Ten: Matt Light
Don’t limit yourselves to the stereotypes that the media has created for you. Don’t listen to what the outside world tells you football players are supposed to do. Aspire to something greater.
-- John Urschel, July 25, Big Ten kickoff luncheon
The term student-athlete has balance in lettering -- seven letters to each word -- but not much else, especially when it comes to big-time college football. Most of the men who fall under the NCAA-driven label are, in reality, more athletes than students, even if they try to be both. They're more about the moment or the near future than the long term. Their wish list includes an NFL contract, not a Ph.D certificate.
Penn State guard John Urschel arguably tips the scale the other way.
He taught an undergraduate math class (MATH 041, trigonometry and analytic geometry) this spring, won the Big Ten Medal of Honor in June, and enters his senior season as a leading candidate for the William V. Campbell Trophy, better known as the Academic Heisman.
"John is one of the more intelligent guys I’ve ever been around," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien recently told ESPN.com. "He's got it all."
Speaking on behalf of the players at the Big Ten's annual kickoff luncheon, Urschel eloquently outlined four things he wished he had been told before he started his college football career. They were: master your craft on the field, make a mark in the community, help young players along their journey and prepare for the day when your football career ends.
"Because our careers are so short and our lives hopefully long," Urschel told a large, captive audience at the Hilton Chicago, "planning and preparing for life without football is the most important of these four, and also the easiest to neglect."
Urschel never has neglected his future. While he might have wished for a primer on the four-point path to success when he arrived in State College, he has followed it every step of the way.
Bryce Hopkins knew Urschel had unique intellect when he met Urschel on the junior-varsity team at Canisius High School in Buffalo, N.Y. Hopkins, then a sophomore, played center for the jayvee, while Urschel, a freshman, occupied a tackle spot. Urschel's mind actually worked to his detriment early in his career as he tended to overthink things rather than just reacting to them.
He had another problem, too.
"He was such a nice guy and had difficulty separating his off-the-field persona from his on-field persona," said Hopkins, who later coached Urschel on the Canisius varsity squad. "He would pancake a kid, and as soon as he was finished pancaking him, he would help the kid up. Our coach was like, 'John, go onto the next play, don't worry about it.'
"Once John got up to the varsity level and he saw how quick and how athletic he was, he was able to use his intellect to read a defense and identify the techniques defensive linemen are using, identify things like blitzing tendencies. It allowed him to go to the next level."
Urschel had a relatively late start to his football career and didn't expect to have a long-term future in the game. He blossomed late in his high school career and seemed ticketed for Princeton before Penn State extended a scholarship offer after his senior season, weeks before signing day.
"There were some better academic schools," Urschel said, "but I would have been hard-pressed to find a better balance of academics and athletics, to be honest. Football's something I take very seriously, and I told my parents that there would be time for me to go to a Princeton or a Stanford or an MIT for graduate work.
"That is in my future. After football, I'll go back to academics."
That time will come after Urschel's football career, which could last a while. He started applying his smarts to the game at Canisius. Hopkins recalls Urschel telling the coaching staff to switch into different run plays because the defensive tackles were playing 2-technique rather than 1-technique.
O'Brien has been around bright offensive linemen in the NFL -- Matt Light, Dan Koppen and Logan Mankins, to name a few -- and subscribes to the notion that the game's smartest players tend to play in the front five.
"There are a lot of things that happen up front in football now, where you have to communicate really fast and clearly," he said. " A lot of times what I’ve found in football is if a guy’s that smart -- and [Urschel] is a brilliant guy -- usually that doesn't correlate to being an instinctive, smart football player. It just doesn’t come as easily. That's not the case with John. He understands football just as well as he understands math."
Urschel's Twitter handle, not surprisingly, is @mathmeetsfball. But he's not all above the neck.
Few players have bought into Penn State's transformative strength and conditioning program under Craig Fitzgerald more than Urschel, who squats 500 pounds and bench-presses more than 400.
"He might be our strongest player overall," O'Brien said.
The coach adds, "He's got a great shot to play pro football."
The 6-foot-3, 301-pound Urschel, who grew up admiring former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, expects to continue his career at the pro level. But he remains humble about his football success, joking during a recent ESPN.com chat with fans that he might have an easier path to the CFL because he was born in Winnipeg and carries dual citizenship.
Urschel is more confident about his future in academics -- Princeton and MIT definitely are on his radar -- and for good reason.
"It’s not very common for a Master's student to publish a paper," said Ludmil Zikatanov, a mathematics professor at Penn State who advises Urschel. "That shows he's very good. I don’t think he’s typical. He’s better than most. Publishing a paper based on your thesis is an excellent achievement."
Zikatanov is working with Urschel to get another paper published, this time on applications of graph theory. Urschel spent part of his summer working with undergrads on the basics of graph theory, helping them prepare for graduate research.
See if you can spot the All-Big Ten offensive lineman among Penn State's roster of mathematics grad students.
"He's just a guy who has talent in math and apparently talent in football," Zikatanov said. "This not a common quality, but I wouldn't say I was very surprised. He's a very capable man. I can see him defending his Ph.D. I’m not going to say it's easy, but he would be able to do that. I know that he wants to play for the NFL and then continue his studies. I think he will be successful in studying math after that.
"Whether he's in academia or industry, he's just a good mathematician."
Urschel is more than a good student-athlete. He strikes the balance so many strive for but can't reach for various reasons, many outside of their own control. The math whiz has solved the student-athlete equation.
"You can’t tell me when an NFL general manager sits down with him at the combine or during pre-draft meetings, they're not going to fall in love with a guy who's so smart, such a great character," Hopkins said. "Some NFL GM is going to want to make him the face of the franchise."
He's certainly one of the faces of Penn State, and the Big Ten, as he gears up for his final college season.
"In each of us lies great talent that extends far beyond our exploits on the gridiron," Urschel said to conclude his speech in Chicago. "Our whole is much more than the sum of our physical parts, and I have no doubt that this generation of football players, like those who have come before us, and those who will come after us, will make contributions to this world that far exceeds the limit of the football field."
RIP, Maurice Sendak.
- The date of the alleged locker-room shower incident involving Jerry Sandusky has changed, which could help two former Penn State officials in their perjury case.
- Recruit Alex Anzalone hasn't ruled out Ohio State after decommitting from the Buckeyes last week. The sex offender who posted pictures of himself and Anzalone on the Web was arrested Monday.
- Spring football accelerated the healing process at both Penn State and Ohio State, colleague Gene Wojciechowski writes.
- Northwestern might be a long shot to bring ESPN's "College GameDay" to campus, but coach Pat Fitzgerald is taking the challenge head on. Matt Micucci starred as a prep quarterback, but he'll walk on as a kicker/punter at Northwestern.
- Several former Illinois players gear up for NFL camps, John Supinie writes. A look back at the year for Illinois football.
- There's a chance Iowa's season opener at Soldier Field might not be televised. The Hawkeyes roll out the welcome mat for folks from Camp Courageous.
- Here's the latest on the arrest of Purdue wide receiver Antavian Edison. Former Purdue star Matt Light has announced his retirement from the NFL's New England Patriots.
- Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs steps into a primary leadership role. Soon-to-be baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin talks about how he told Bo Schembechler he was quitting football at Michigan.
- Dirk Chatelain has a very personal take on the controversy surrounding Nebraska assistant Ron Brown.
- Wisconsin's coaches need to make a stronger effort to ensure their athletes avoid bad choices. Montee Ball wasn't the only elite athlete on Mifflin Street -- oh, Kaner.
- BTN.com's Tom Dienhart ranks his top Big Ten tandems.
- Bill O'Brien is aware of the expectations he faces at Penn State. The Beaver Stadium scoreboard makeover won't be complete until 2014.
- Several former Minnesota players are chasing their NFL dreams with the Vikings.
- A defensive recruit from Florida lands his first scholarship offer from Indiana.
- The Football Writers Association of America gives some well-deserved recognition to Michigan State's athletic communications staff.
- The Naples News' David Moulton favors Jim Delany's proposal for a college football playoff.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Big Ten's only new head coach isn't new at Purdue. Danny Hope was there for Purdue's rebirth in the late 1990s and returned last year as head coach-in waiting and offensive line coach. Those tags have since been removed, and Hope is going through his first practices as the man in charge. Purdue comes off a 4-8 season and missed a bowl for just the second time since Joe Tiller's arrival in 1997. Hope brought in five new coaches during the offseason, including offensive coordinator Gary Nord and defensive coordinator Donn Landholm.
|Sandra Dukes/Icon SMI|
|Joey Elliott is a candidate to start at QB for Purdue in 2009.|
The Boilers have competition at quarterback, running back and wide receiver as they try to turn things around in Hope's first year. I caught up with Hope earlier this week.
A few practices in, is the team where you thought it would be? Ahead of schedule? Behind schedule?
Danny Hope: We're ahead in some ways. Obviously, when you have a guy like Curtis Painter, who was accomplished as he was at the quarterback spot, you've got a lot of work to do. We are eight receivers short from the roster of 2008. So I didn't really know what to expect when we went out the first day in shorts last Wednesday, but I was very pleased with what we've got done so far. We are able to go out there and execute the offense to some degree, which is a good sign for us this early in spring. The good thing about our quarterback spot, even though we don't have a bona fide returning starter, is our top two quarterbacks played in 2008.
How does the quarterback competition shape up right now?
DH: Joey Elliott was a very good No. 2 quarterback for us, was actually putting pressure on Painter and starting to get in some games, and then he got injured. You're not getting a rookie. He's a football junkie. He loves it. He had shoulder surgery and his health status is much better than I thought it would be at the start of spring. He's throwing the ball better, got a little more zip on it. He's a guy who knows more about the offense than anyone else we have on that side of the ball right now. So him being healthy enough to go out there and throw was a huge shot in the arm for us. And obviously, Justin Siller, even though he wasn't that well prepared because he had not been in the lineup before and was working as a running back, we beat Michigan with Justin Siller and he's a great athlete. He has some game experience. So we don't have two varsity rookies out there. That's a good sign. And I really like what I'm seeing out of our freshman, Caleb TerBush, who was on the scout team all of last year, he's out there getting some great reps. We're further along at the quarterback spot than I thought we were going to be, but when you're comparing it to the likes of Drew Brees, Kyle Orton and Curtis Painter, we're nowhere near that.
Do you have a timetable on when you'd like to make a decision on a starter? Will it go well into preseason camp?
DH: Everybody asks that, and the most important thing to me is the development at the quarterback position, not just one particular quarterback. Last year is a classic example of what I'm talking about, where Painter went down and Joey Elliott got hurt and we had to take Justin Siller from running back and move him to quarterback, and he wasn't prepared to do so. I think the development of all of our quarterbacks is key this spring, and certainly the No. 1. We'll play as many players as we can, so I'm not really concerned about saying there has to be a certain deadline or due date as long as each and every one of our quarterbacks are improving and can get themselves in position to help us win. That's more important than naming a guy.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Danny Hope flanked Joe Tiller's right side as Purdue took its team picture Thursday morning at Ross-Ade Stadium. A year from now, Hope will be right in the middle of the frame as he succeeds Tiller as Boilermakers head coach.
When I talked to Hope in the spring, he had only a bed and a chair in his new house. The place is fully furnished now, but he's still waiting for his wife, Sally, to move north from Kentucky. The solitude isn't ideal, but it has given Hope plenty of time to focus on Purdue's football future. The coach-in-waiting took some time Thursday to discuss the transition, his recruiting strategy and the outlook for the offensive linemen he'll coach this fall.
In terms of where you wanted to be at this point with the transition, are you on target?
Danny Hope: Absolutely. We got done what we needed to get done the first eight months. Obviously, we're very much involved with the recruiting process coming in, looked at several hundred tapes and came up with a great short list of recruits that we feel we have a chance to get that we want really bad. That was really important to us, to come up with a very large pool of top players we felt we had a chance to get, so we could weather through the attrition process of recruiting. We're much further ahead as far as what we have left in the pool to recruit than I thought we'd have at this point in time. That was our goal. That was a lot of work, man. The magnitude of that undertaking is something the average fan can't even begin to grasp.
Is it constantly looking at tape, constantly talking to coaches, just the gathering process or being out there?
DH: It's the gathering process of names and then the evaluation process and then getting into the recruiting process. We had to get into all three parts. Our goal was to be able to create a very large pool of top prospects who Purdue fits that we had a legitimate shot to get. And then weather through the other teams that want those types of players as well and still have a large number of players for us to recruit. We came out ahead on that. I feel good about the number of guys we're recruiting right now. I also got real involved with our academics because pretty soon, I'll be the head coach and academics is where it's at right now as far as the future of your football team. We made a lot of progress. We start the season with everyone eligible, and that's real exciting. The staff's really committed to it.
Does the type of player you're recruiting differ much from the type of player that Joe's been recruiting?
DH: I don't know because I haven't been here the last five years. Obviously, we have a lot of great players here and we'd like to bring in some more just like it and add to that, and attempt to get more special players, too. But when you start off with a big pool, you don't know what you're dealing with.
But are you looking for the same types of skills? I know you're going to keep a similar offensive structure.
DH: We have some really big, good receivers, more big, good receivers than I've ever been around on a football team, so I don't feel the need right now necessarily to get as many big receivers and maybe can go out and set our goals for a few quicker, faster guys for the inside positions because they've done such a good job bringing in the receivers you play on the edge with. Offensive line-wise, I'm trying to recruit more tackle-type prospects where maybe size is not the No. 1 factor and hang our hat more on speed and athleticism. I felt we had more of those types of guys the last time I was here with the Matt Lights and Brandon Gorins. I like to recruit just line prospects. Those are guys that are good enough to play on defense but are big enough to move to offense. That's a special pool of recruits. We have a nice pool of those guys. So there's maybe a few differences in what we're looking for, talent-wise, but we want to certainly recruit some more guys like the ones we have here.