Workouts at 5 a.m. might not bring out the best of moods, but when it came time for someone to step up in an early morning contest, Penn State guard John Urschel was ready to answer the call.
"Give me your biggest guy," strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald shouted, looking for the offense and defense to produce a player each for "The Tug," a circular weight with handles on each end used for a basic tug-of-war challenge. The defense sent out Nate Cadogan, and as offensive lineman Donovan Smith made his way out, Urschel stepped up and waved him aside.
"I got this," he said, stepping up to challenge.
And he did. After a short struggle, Urschel found himself dragging Cadogan the required yards for the offense's victory. While they ran inside to warm up, the defense stayed outside to do a few extra push-ups.
Urschel is one of a handful of players looking to step up into a leadership role this offseason. With players like Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich out of the picture, new names and faces will step up to answer the call.
"I'm just doing whatever I can to help make the team better," Urschel said. "That's about all it adds up to. I'm trying to help the younger guys that might not know how certain things go, to help mold them, to help this team so we'll be prepared come fall."
While NCAA President Mark Emmert was scolding Penn State for its alleged "erosion of academic values," Urschel was working on his now published mathematical paper called "Instabilities in the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem."
The 31-page work is an impressive feat in and of itself, but considering that Urschel is teaching a class, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, and starting on Penn State's offensive line, it's nothing short of a miracle he has time to do any one of those things, let alone all of them at once.
Thankfully for Urschel, some of that data analysis practice he has in the classroom can carry over to the football field as well.
"It requires five people to work together as one," Urschel said of his fellow linemen. "To be able to analyze a defense, see what the defense is doing, and see it through everyone's eyes to make sure everyone is on the same page.
"That's a big part of requiring guys to be smart enough to work together to understand what they're seeing. Take the data that's in front of them to truly analyze what kind of front they're in, what kind of blitz is coming, and how to block the defense as it does that."
While Urschel has gotten plenty of deserved credit for his on- and off-field actions, he's more than willing to dish out the compliments himself, especially about fellow lineman Donovan Smith.
"He might be the most talented offensive lineman I've ever been around," Urschel said. "I was blessed to be around Wis [Stefen Wisniewski, current NFL lineman and Penn State alum] when I was younger, and he was an older guy. A guy that is just a technician, and is doing great in the league right now with the Raiders. But Donovan is just the best physical talent I've ever seen. Right now."
"We've got a lot of great players on this team, and we're just working to build our confidence, through lifting, through running, to know that our team is prepared come fall," Urschel said.