UNIVERSITY PARK - The Penn State football team has turned out a lot of players that also excelled in the classroom over the years, but the list of those who can match senior guard John Urschel's intelligence is a short one.
"Any smart question you have to ask, ask Urschel," redshirt freshman tackle Donovan Smith said on media day last week. "He knows it all."
"If I tell him something wrong, he brings it to my attention," offensive line coach Mac McWhorter added with a grin.
Urschel, whose major is mathematics, hopes everything adds up for the Nittany Lion offensive line this season as it always seems to do for him.
"I think we work extremely well together as a unit, and I think that will show in the fall," Urschel said.
Despite having four new starters, the early results have been promising. First-year Lion head coach Bill O'Brien has praised the unit, which has returnee Matt Stankiewitch flanked by Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach on the inside. Smith and Adam Gress probably will be the starting tackles for the season-opener against Ohio, with Mike Farrell rotating in.
"They've got to get better every day like everybody else. But I felt good about their toughness, athletic ability, their intelligence, so I'm expecting those guys to go out and play well," O'Brien said recently.
That vote of confidence has to be quite reassuring to Nittany Lion fans. Keep in mind, last year's offensive line had remarkable consistency - the same five players started every game. They paved the way for Silas Redd to rush for more than 1,200 yards and for Penn State rushers to average 4.2 yards per carry. They only gave up 14 sacks, fewest in the Big Ten.
Transition to this year: The only player other than Stankiewitch to start a game is Farrell. And he's only started once in three years.
Although the numbers don't seem to be there, Stankiewitch likes what he's seen so far.
"We set our expectations and goals very high. We want to be the best. We want to strive to be the best. We want to get better. We are going to get better. The mindset's the big thing for us," Stankiewitch said. "We all get along great. This may be the best year [in terms of camaraderie] since I've been here. No one's selfish. No one has an ego. We're all going to propel each other to get better."
The talent and potential seems to be there. Gress and Dieffenbach both came out of the Pittsburgh area as highly touted recruits.
"Miles Dieffenbach is doing very well for himself. He has a great attitude," Stankiewitch said. "I think the big thing about these young guys is their attitude. Donovan Smith and Mike Farrell, although Mike is a senior, they want to get better."
A transplanted New Yorker, Smith was an elite prospect coming out of high school in Maryland a year ago, getting selected to play in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Game and performing well there. A 6-foot-5, 316-pounder whose look screams prototype left tackle, he was good enough to crack the two-deep as a true freshman and tempt the former coaching staff with burning his redshirt before finding the restraint to hold off on that.
"He ended up being one of our better offensive lineman for the spring," McWhorter said. "We need to take that into the fall with him, but he's got a chance to be really special."
Smith was good enough that other colleges came calling and looking to get him to transfer when the University Park campus was basically opened for business by the NCAA as part of its sanctions against Penn State last month. Smith stayed, citing a number of reasons, including the academics.
A hamstring injury has slowed Smith in the preseason: His first real practice came on Friday.
"Offseason and in spring ball, I think I've done pretty well. I have to credit Stank and Urschel and all of them with helping me," Smith said. "And, of course, Mac has helped a lot."
A former all-SEC lineman at Georgia, McWhorter brings 34 years of college coaching experience to the Penn State sideline and a pedigree for turning out top lines. In 2008, he was the American Football Coaches Association assistant coach of the year.
"Obviously you have to have talent, but the character level is probably one of the more critical areas [to having a good offensive line], because offensive linemen, by and large, are overachievers. I tell them, 'If you were a great athlete, you wouldn't be in this room. You'd be sitting someplace else,'" McWhorter said, pointing across the field at the defense. "This group has great work ethic, great determination and great pride in what they're doing."
That's already shown in the weightroom. Helped by new strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald's methods, this will be one of the biggest lines the Nittany Lions ever have put onto the field. Every one of the top six players is at least 300 pounds.
"Fitz and his crew have done a great job working with them, and my hat's off to the kids. They've made great transitions in their bodies. They're bigger, stronger, more massive with less body fat," McWhorter said.
Urschel might be the poster child of the group. He came to Penn State from the Buffalo area as an unheralded recruit close to signing day. While higher-rated linemen have fallen by the wayside, he's persevered and put himself in position to win a starting spot.
"I'm excited to go out there on Saturdays and contribute to my team and help us win some football games this fall," Urschel said.
Although he majors in math and McWhorter thinks he will be a front-runner for the academic Heisman, Urschel has become a student of chemistry when it comes to this Penn State line and given it high marks. If anyone can make the assessment, it's Urschel - his father is a retired thorasic surgeon and his mother's an attorney, so school work was heavily emphasized as he was growing up. He was proud to hear some of his teammates say they stayed at Penn State for the education as much as football.
"This is a great football school. At the same time, this is a great academic institution. The school has so much more to offer. I think it's good that guys recognize that and understand," said Urschel, who already has graduated but still has two years of football eligibility.
There are some depth concerns. Center Ty Howle and guard Mark Arciadiacono have been sidelined with injuries, and tackle Ryan Nowicki transferred to Illinois. Still, if the offensive line can follow the example of Urschel, this could turn out to be one of the Nittany Lions' strengths this season.
"We're a work in progress," McWhorter said. "We've got a long way to go. But we've come a long way."