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March 11, 2014

Column: A practical vacation

This is what John Urschel was talking about.

Lounging in downtown State College last July, months before the start of his fifth and final football season at Penn State, the Nittany Lion starting offensive guard/mathematical genius was as relaxed as I'd seen him. His masters degree in math completed, Urschel - for the first time in his memory - had no papers to complete, no grades left to earn.

Urschel was, quite simply, enjoying himself.

Asked whether or not it was the 'Summer of John,' his close friend Stefen Wisniewski - former Penn Stater, current Oakland Raider, and fellow academic achiever - knew the feeling intimately.

"After what he did for four years academically, the natural reaction is that you're tired," Wisniewski said, noting the exhaustion that comes with a 4.0 grade point average through the course of an undergraduate and masters degree in just four years. "It's actually a pretty normal thing to want to take a rest for a little while, and he certainly earned it. But, it's definitely natural for guys like us to feel like we're lazy if we rest for a while."

Urschel's summer days were not consumed by the work that accompanied the academic accomplishments of a first-team Academic All-American and eventual William V. Campbell Trophy recipient. Not that mathematics had ever been a particularly stressful endeavor for Urschel, but essentially, the academic pursuit amounted to additional work and commitment on top of football that many of his peers had never - and won't ever - put themselves through.

All football and all school, all the time, Wiz explained.

Though Urschel continued to teach a high-level math course at Penn State in the fall while completing some work toward a second masters, the revelation was that of a young man able to finally pursue what he wanted the most:

Football.

Having wrapped up his senior season as a Nittany Lion in December, that shift in focus has been magnified even further. Any and every split level of attention has been pushed off Urschel's radar. In its place, a perverse type of vacation has emerged, unfamiliar to many but completely welcomed in the 22-year old's life.

"Right now, I'm loving where I'm at. I'm at this special place in my life that I've never been before where it's almost surreal," Urschel said when reached by phone last week. "My entire day is devoted to football. My… Entire… Day."

Urschel is seemingly stunned to have the fortune of two workouts a day, film study, increased football IQ, extensive conversations with former teammates about preparation for his planned next step, the National Football League.

Training in San Diego for the bulk of the winter, missing out completely on State College's brutal cold, Urschel worked extensively with former NFL offensive line coach Hudson Houck to improve his lateral speed and offensive line technique. Considering himself to be bigger, stronger, and faster as a result of the extensive work, Urschel said he was pleased with his performance at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in February. In fact, producing 30 reps on the bench press, 4.47 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle, 7.55 seconds in the three-cone drill, and 29 inches on his vertical leap, Urschel tested out among the top ten offensive linemen in each category.

None of this is to say, of course, that Urschel's remaining path to the NFL is free from obstacles.

Back in town in advance of Penn State's Pro Day on April 8, Urschel would like to improve his 40-yard time on the 5.31 seconds he posted last month. And, though Urschel said he graded out well in his senior film, noting scouts' assertion that his go-getter style of play is his best asset, questions about his explosiveness off the ball remain. Additionally, understanding the need to be flexible in playing different spots along the line at the next level, Urschel has worked extensively on snapping at center.

Yet, at 6-foot-3, 313 pounds, with an impressive 13.8 body fat percentage thanks to his much-improved eating habits, Urschel can now nearly touch a dream that, just three years ago, hadn't truly even existed.

On a journey that has seen the Buffalo, N.Y., native rise from an unheralded Rivals.com two-star high school product - the second-to-last commitment of Penn State's Class of 2009 - into a potential NFL Draft pick, Urschel remains thrilled by the prospects that potentially await him.

"I'm about to embark on a very long-term vacation. Honestly, that's how I feel," he said. "Listen, I'm just doing what I love every single day. It's awesome.

"I'm so excited for the Draft and being with a team. Just the idea that my job is going to be to play football all day is just amazing to me."


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