'Genius' Urschel steps up to line for Penn State

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'Genius' Urschel steps up to line for Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- 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.

Penn Relays: After long climb, English Gardner's life is on track

Penn Relays: After long climb, English Gardner's life is on track

The brick wall separating the stands from the track within Franklin Field is, perhaps, six feet tall.

The first time English Gardner attended the Penn Relays, as a 12-year-old, she rushed to that barrier and looked down upon the competitors milling about before an event. She was a budding sprinter then, and admittedly "kind of a crazy kid, and very confident in my abilities."

Spotting Lauryn Williams, the great American sprinter, Gardner delivered a simple message.

"I'm gonna take your job one day," she screamed.

Who knew then that far more imposing barriers would lie ahead? That making the leap from the stands to the track would be the least of her worries?

***

Gardner, a Philadelphia native who graduated from Eastern High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, was back at the Relays this weekend, running 100-meter legs in the victorious women's sprint medley relay and the second-place 4x100 relay, as part of Saturday's USA vs. the World competition.

It was maybe the sixth or seventh time she has competed at the event over the years, she said one day earlier. This time, she returned as an Olympic champion, having been part of the 4x100 relay team that won gold last summer in Rio.

As the 25-year-old Gardner sat in a news conference Friday, she seemed every bit as bubbly and self-assured as she had been all those years ago. She was wide-eyed. She laughed easily. She talked about personal records and putting on a show this weekend.

Long gone were the vestiges of depression, with which she had struggled late in 2015 and in the early months of last year. Her first public discussion of her battle with that disease had been with SI.com's Lindsay Schnell on the eve of the Rio Games, and she talked about it again when she was pulled aside following Friday's presser.

It had been "a slow descent," Gardner said, and it left her in a deep, dark place. She recovered only with the help of professionals, as well as her family. And now she appears to be all the way back.

"I believe to be able to rebuild, stuff has to be destroyed, and that was my moment," she said. "I needed to be broken down. I needed to destroy it and now I'm back and I'm better, I'm stronger, I'm more confident and I'm just a totally different person. I'm having fun with track again, and that's what it's all about."

Her openness about her affliction was born of a desire to help others. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million American adults struggle with depression. That's 6.7 percent of the United States' population, aged 18 and older.

"The thoughts that I had — suicide and stuff like that — those thoughts are real," she said. "I thought that sharing my story last year would give someone hope — let them know there's other options than that option."

According to Schnell's story, Gardner's mom, Monica, believed her daughter — the second-oldest of four children born to her and her husband, Anthony — was destined for great things from birth, and as a result gave her a distinctive first name "that people would remember, something that sounded good over a loudspeaker."

That proved to be the case. She starred at Eastern, then won two NCAA 100-meter outdoor championships, as well as a 60-meter indoor title, during her three years at Oregon.

After turning pro in 2013, she sought not only to harness her considerable physical abilities but also her emotions. She was too skittish, her coach told her, too ridden by anxiety.

As a result, she said, "I basically created an alter ego where I can contain her and gear her only toward getting my goals, and that's getting a gold medal."

She took to calling this thing "Baby Beast."

"I just needed to contain her," she said, "because she was running wild, all over the place."

She finished second in the 100 at the USATF outdoor meet in the spring of 2015, but by that fall her fortunes had turned. A torn hamstring was limiting her on the track. She and her coach were not on the same page. 

"All these things kind of weighed down on me," she said. "My love life was crappy. Spiritually I had kind of gotten away [from] my meditation and praying, things like that. As it went on longer, the worse it got."

Next stop, rock bottom. And she stayed there for about six months, by her recollection.

"I've never experienced anything like that — anxiety, depression, just not wanting to get up out of bed, not wanting to go to practice, not wanting to eat, lights off all the time — just stuff like that," she said.

Her mom flew to Los Angeles, where English was living at the time, to help out. As Monica told Schnell, "We loved her back to life." Her daughter had, in fact, done much the same for her a decade earlier, when Monica survived breast cancer.

English also sought professional help, from not only a psychologist but a sports psychologist and a spiritual counselor.

"I tripled up on myself," she said with a laugh. "I'm a big personality, so I figured to control that big personality, I needed more than one person."

She won the 100 at last year's Olympic Trials, and while she slipped to seventh in that event in Rio, she did earn gold in the relay.

She was back. Back on the side of the wall, she had been trying to reach for so very long.

And there she remains.

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Like many people who come from nearby high schools, Penn senior Chris Hatler has been running at the Penn Relays since he was 15. But his initial experience at the famed meet did not go exactly as planned

“The first relay ever, I fell in the first 100 meters,” he said, “and made a fool of myself.”

Such can be the dangers of overwhelmed teenagers competing at a competition that also features college and professional stars — a three-day track & field carnival that is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country.

But last year, Hatler became one of those college stars himself, helping Penn to a dramatic win in the 4xmile — the host school’s first win in that event since 1950 and its first championship in any of the meet’s marquee distance relays since 1974.

Now, with the 123rd running of the Penn Relays set to kick off in full Thursday — the same day that the NFL draft begins across town — Hatler is ready to add another wheel before graduating, along with fellow senior Nick Tuck.

“Last year was exciting to win the 4xmile, but I kinda felt like for the seniors last year, it was their win, it was their wheel,” said Hatler, who also helped the Quakers set a school record in last year’s distance medley relay. “I know Nick and I kinda have a little grudge here. We want our own wheel for ourselves our senior year. So we’re gonna come out and see what we can do.”

Although the USA vs. the World races Saturday to highlight the meet, the college relays are often the most exciting with wild sprints to the finish line occurring in front of packed Franklin Field crowds. Last year, in between Team USA races, then-senior Thomas Awad chased down two other runners in the 4xmile to give Penn the victory on national TV, before being mobbed by Hatler, Tuck and Keaton Naff. 

Hatler couldn’t quite see the track from where he was standing but had a feeling that Awad — one of the most accomplished athletes in Penn’s track & field history — would come through on the final lap of his Penn Relays career.

“You never bet against Tom at the end of the race,” said Hatler, who earlier this year cracked the 4-minute-mile barrier. “We kinda knew it was gonna happen.”

Few other people expected it because the host school hasn’t always been competitive in the college championships at Penn Relays. But another local school always is — Villanova.

And the Wildcats are glad to get some more competition from their Big 5 rival.

“It was thrilling for me to see it happen,” Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “This is really the home school. We’re happy to be sharing the stress of Penn [Relays] every year with the real home school.”

As for his own team, O’Sullivan said the Wildcats are dealing with injuries so it may not be in top form for the men’s distance medley relay (Friday, 5:30 p.m.), men’s 4xmile (Saturday, 1:15 p.m.) and the men’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:40 p.m.), the first two of which will be broadcast on NBC Sports.

But he touted the talent of redshirt freshman Logan Wetzel, among others, and seems ready to throw some youngsters into the fire.

“I always say Penn is a defining arena for kids to grow up,” said O’Sullivan, who ran the Penn Relays as a student at Villanova. “You really start to learn. You prepare a year for Penn. 

“My junior year, we were annihilated, lost everything, and it one of the most humiliating moments of my life because so much is expected of you and you drop the ball. I spent a whole year just waiting for Penn, just training for Penn. The year I made the Olympic team, I kid you not, running at Penn, winning at Penn, was way more important for me at that time of my life. That’s how big it is.”

Villanova women’s coach Gina Procaccio also ran the Penn Relays in college and has similar feelings about the significance of the meet. And she’s ready to lead her powerhouse teams to more championships in the women’s distance medley relay (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.), the women’s 4x1500 (Friday, 1:20 p.m.) and the women’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).

Those relay teams will be led by Angel Piccirillo, a fifth-year senior who redshirted last year, and junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner — two of the best distance runners in the NCAA. But it won’t be easy for them as this year’s field will be stacked with the likes of Oregon and Stanford.

But no one has done better at Penn Relays than the Villanova women, who have won 14 DMRs all time, including four straight from 2012-2015.

“I’m not one to shy away from the competition,” Procaccio said. “I like to earn those wins.”