CHICAGO — John Urschel looked over a stack of papers as the airplane carrying him, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien and his teammates Malcolm Willis and Glenn Carson soared over the Midwest.
He allowed some time for a mathematics quiz with his teammates before getting back to his pages. On them were lines he would eventually deliver before a packed room as the Big Ten Media Days keynote speaker at its wrap-up luncheon on Thursday.
Even with a brain like his — a biological computer that has already earned a degree in mathematics and is churning toward a masters degree — Urschel doesn’t plan on memorizing his speach.
He took it to the lectern with him. He didn’t read it. Rather, he delivered it.
Smoothly, calculated and from the heart, Urschel made eye contact with his audience after opening with a joke — “I took a course in public speaking my sophomore year but unfortunately for me it was online.”
The audience roared.
Then, Urschel got serious.
He spoke for just under eight minutes, offering four points of advice for younger players — advice he said he wished he had received when he began his career as a true freshman at Penn State.
Urschel, who started playing football in high school, encouraged his younger peers to master their craft as football players, contribute to their communities, help guide the next generation of Big Ten players and to contemplate and plan for the day their football careers end.
The capacity crowd inside the Hilton’s grand ballroom stood for a minute, offering uproarious applause as Urschel finished. He shook hands with other Big Ten coaches and drew praise from Big Ten Network host Dave Revsine, who called Urschel a premier student-athlete. Illinois coach Tim Beckman also saluted Urschel’s speech in his remarks to the crowd later.
It was a fitting reception for a student so used to succeeding. Urschel is already a published author. His academic paper entitled “Instabilities in the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem” ran in a 2012 edition of the scholarly journal "Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy."
Alongside his masters studies, Urschel is currently working on three more papers.
“I have more on the way,” he said. “We will see when those are published. I’m not going to talk about them until they’re published.”
Lately football is a rare subject with Urschel. Reporters in Chicago were more eager to pick his brain about academia than blocking schemes. But, Urschel’s teammates and coaches are quick to point out that his brawn matches his brain.
Urschel was one of the first players second-year coach O’Brien noticed when he took over the program.
“When we came here he was a guy we didn’t know a lot about as a player,” O’Brien said. “He stood out to us right away in spring practice as a guy that we thought was going to be a real good player for us.”
Urschel played in all 24 games over the last two seasons and has established himself as one of the best interior linemen in the Big Ten.
“Most people don’t remember that last year he was an All-Big Ten selection,” Willis said. “In order to be an all-conference selection you have to be quite the football player. Especially in the Big Ten where we’re known for running the ball and being smash-mouth. For him to be an interior lineman and earn one of those awards, that’s a testament to his work ethic and how hard he plays.”
The 6-foot-3, 307-pound Urschel helped pave the way for Zach Zwinak to rush for 1,000 yards last season. This year, he’ll be counted on even more to aid the run game, protect Penn State’s quarterback and lead an offensive line that will have to break in two new starters.
Center Ty Howle will replace Matt Stankiewitch while Adam Gress will take over for Mike Farrell at right tackle. Garry Gilliam, who switched to tackle from tight end, Eric Shrive and interior lineman Angelo Mangiro are also poised to see time in the offensive line rotation.
As is typical with Urschel, the numbers add up.
“I feel like we’ve got a very versatile offensive line,” Urschel said. “We’ve got guys that can play a lot of different positions. In the interior, guards and centers, me, Miles (Dieffenbach) and Ty can all play center and guard. And the reason you see Angelo behind all of us is because he’s a good offensive lineman and he can play all of those positions.”
A do-it-all player with a mind like Urschel’s would know.