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Barfknecht: PSU's Urschel grounded to the 'nth' degree

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Barfknecht: PSU's Urschel grounded to the 'nth' degree

Guard John Urschel, working on a second master's degree in math, didn't let NCAA sanctions persuade him to leave Penn State's football program.

The reason I love what I do for a living is the chance to meet people like Penn State offensive guard John Urschel.

First, he's a really good football player. The 6-foot-3, 301-pound senior out of suburban Buffalo, N.Y., earned first-team All-Big Ten honors last season and is on the Outland Trophy watch list for this season.

Second, there is the faint hope during a 20-minute interview that some of his smarts might rub off on me.

Urschel was a first-team academic All-American last season, but that's like saying a Ferrari is a nice little car.

In three years at Penn State, Urschel earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics with a perfect 4.0 grade average. Last year, he added a master's, again with perfect grades, and now has started work toward a second master's in math education.

He already has been published in a journal called Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy. The title? “Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem.”

Oh, and then for fun last spring while practicing football and dealing with his own schoolwork, he taught a Penn State undergraduate class three times a week: Trigonometry and Analytic Geometry.

Why the love for high-level mathematics?

“I like the challenge it presents me,” Urschel said. “And I like how everything has an explanation.”

A question about what his toughest class has been draws a thoughtful pause.

“I have a hard time thinking of one,” he said. “I don't think about my math courses in terms of toughness. I think about them in terms of enjoyment.”

Not surprising for someone who during a sophomore-level math class said he spent 10 percent of his time on coursework and 90 percent on the extra-credit questions the professor sent him weekly “for fun.”

Urschel's academic prowess put him in a potentially tight spot last summer when the NCAA hit Penn State with heavy sanctions, including the ability for players to transfer without penalty.

Stanford, which had offered Urschel out of high school, by coincidence at the time was gauging his interest in moving west for academics because he already had graduated.

“I had a full academic scholarship offer along with a sizable stipend every year,” he said. “But I didn't have to think about it too hard. I love my university, and I love playing football at Penn State.”

The transfer immunity, which expired earlier this month, isn't something Penn State players discussed out loud, Urschel said. But the team took pride that after some initial departures last August, only one player left after spring ball, and that was over playing time.

“That shows there is no bleeding in this program,” Urschel said. “We're doing just fine. Believe me, we are a very happy group of football players.”

The harsh penalties carry on.

Penn State is banned from postseason play for three more years. And starting in 2014, the school must limit itself to 65 scholarships — 20 below the maximum. PSU already is down to 67 this season.

Urschel smiles in the face of those perceived woes. “It's not an issue of us against the world,” he said. “Football has never been more fun for me than last year.”

For that, the credit goes to head coach Bill O'Brien, who arrived from the NFL and got blindsided by the penalties.

“I can't imagine where we'd be without Coach O'Brien,” Urschel said, his voice trembling. “He is a hell of a football coach, and we are blessed to have him.

“We wouldn't want any other coach at Penn State, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. That guy could have easily cut and run on us, but he stuck with us. We're better for it.”

Urschel unashamedly said the Nittany Lions “love” O'Brien.

“The biggest thing was he was honest with us from Day One,” Urschel said. “He won't lie to you. He'll tell you the truth — even more truthful than some players would like. But I really respect that.

“I don't like things sugar-coated. And I certainly don't like being lied to. You respect that out of a coach, and a man in general.”

For all the time spent worrying about the woes of younger generations, it would behoove us all to focus more on young men and women whose lights are on bright, like Urschel.

He's delightfully engaging, well-spoken and funny. While addressing 1,700 people at the Big Ten football luncheon, Urschel noted he once took a public-speaking course.

“Unfortunately for me,” he deadpanned, “it was online.”

He's also not perfect. For one quarter in the sixth grade, Urschel flunked home economics. “There was cooking involved, and it didn't go well for me,” he said. “I burned a lot of things.”

As for well-grounded? Try this tidbit about his decision out of high school to go to Penn State:

“There were better academic schools I could have gone to. But I think I would have been hard-pressed to find a better balance of academics and athletics. Football is something I take seriously, and I told my parents there would be time for me to go to a Princeton or a Stanford or an MIT for graduate work.”

That deserves a bravo. And though we all know there is no cheering in the press box, here's hoping Urschel plays well enough to win the Outland Trophy.

The idea of him coming to Omaha to mingle would be time well spent for all of us.

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