Friday Q&A: Penn State's John Urschel

John Urschel is a senior offensive guard who might have more accomplishments off the field than on. He was an All-Big Ten lineman last season and also co-authored a paper in the journal, "Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy" that sought to prove how asteroids move in an unstable manner.

He carries a 4.0 GPA, is working on his second master's degree, taught a Penn State math class -- and he's also one of the leaders on Penn State's offense. I recently caught up with Urschel to talk about life on and off the football field for this week's Friday Q&A:

Right after Bill O'Brien's news conference this week, you joked that your head coach didn't ask you -- the math genius -- whether you should've gone for two at the end of the Michigan game. Well, tell me, what does math say you should've done?

John Urschel: I don't know what math says, but the offensive lineman in me says you go for two and you run the ball. [Laughs]

By now, everyone knows you're pretty good at math. (It's been documented here, here and here.) What's one thing you're good at that people don't know about?

JU: I'm a pretty good chess player. I do not have a ranking; I haven't played in any official matches or tournaments. But I figure once I get done with football, I might get into that and play competitively. I've only been into it for the past two years, but I've been pretty serious about it.

How are you serious about it?

JU: Whether it's practicing certain end games, different openings, just training my tactical vision. I do that in my free time -- not so much in the fall because I just don't have time, though.

You don't really come across as a person who does things halfway. It seems like once you do something ...

JU: Yeah, I try to do it well. I don't do things halfway. Another interesting thing -- Connect Four, have you ever played?

Oh, yeah. I can still tell you that '90s commercial jingle.

JU: When I move first, I am unbeaten. Unbeaten. And I dare someone to beat me. Bring this Connect Four game. I challenge someone to beat me, me moving first.

Is it because, mathematically, the person who goes first can always win? I'm onto you John ...

JU: [Laughs] Mathematically, you're always going to win if you play perfectly -- which not everyone can do. But playing perfectly, you will always win. Last time I played? Three or four days ago. I think I played someone on the team. I won.

Can I test your math ability a bit? If I just give you a series of double-digits, can you multiply them all together like a human calculator?

JU: Here's the thing. I get this question a lot. I have to warm myself up. This is something people don't get. So you're playing football -- you warm up before you play. Suppose you're doing some heavy computations -- you're doing a lot of math and a lot of heavy thinking. You don't do your best work when you just start, sit down and start doing it. You have to warm yourself up; it takes time. So if I'm completely not doing something math-related and somebody bothers me with that, I have to warm myself up. It's different.

OK, fine -- we'll skip the math pop quiz for now. Let's talk about football a little bit. How do you feel about your performance so far this season?

JU: I'd say, honestly, I had a slow start this year. But I'm really becoming more happy with my play as the season goes on. I'm really hoping to continue that strong performance throughout the Big Ten season.

What about two of your teammates on the line, Ty Howle and Donovan Smith? You had a lot of praise for Smith over the offseason.

JU: Ty's played really well. You know Ty's my boy; we're real tight. I love that guy to death. We've been playing together for -- this is our fifth season. He's played really well. He's taken that starting center spot and run with it. He's a big-time player. Donovan is a physical talent; he has as much talent as anyone on this offensive line. End of story. Footwork, good size, good job running through blocks. The list goes on.

You mentioned before you can go to Stanford or MIT after football's over. So you want to test the -- I mean, play in the NFL and then kind of move on?

JU: No, no. No testing the waters.

[Laughs] I tried to take that back.

JU: No testing. All in. I have every hope and aspiration to play in the NFL and I'm going to try to do everything I can to make it until they don't want me anymore. And when they say, 'John, stop trying,' that's when I'll go and get my PhD in math.

Do you think you're better at football or math?

JU: I think I've been given more gifts in one than another. More gifts in math. I've grown up to be 6-3 -- good size, good frame. But I'm no Donovan Smith. I'm not 6-7 or 6-6, or you know. It took work to get big and strong and become a good football player. Math has always been there; I've known that since I can remember.

Known since you were beating all the school kids at Connect Four?

JU: [Laughs] Yeah. That must have been it.