Penn State Nittany Lions: Craig Fitzgerald

8 staff members leaving Penn State

January, 6, 2014
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Eight Penn State staff members submitted their resignations Monday, and now only three coaches remain on staff.

Among those who left include defensive coordinator John Butler, running backs coach Charles London, wide receivers coach Stan Hixon, safeties coach Anthony Midget and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald.

With the announcement of a new head coach possibly just days away, the movement wasn't considered much of a surprise. Many of those assistants followed former coach Bill O'Brien to Happy Valley, and there was no guarantee they would've kept their jobs had they stayed at Penn State anyway.

Hixon and London were seen as locks to join O'Brien, and O'Brien was forced to defend Butler at several points during the season from "Fire him" criticism. But there was one staff member here whom players most hoped to see back, and one departure that hurt the most -- Fitzgerald, the strength coach.

For those unfamiliar with the Nittany Lions' program, that might come as a surprise. But likely not to PSU fans. Former and current players lamented the loss on Twitter.
He was a fan favorite who wore his trademark shorts and T-shirt during snow squalls and below-freezing temperatures. He'd perform the worm during pregame routines and once, players said, licked the gym floor to fire his team up. So, yeah, maybe the guy was a bit crazy. But in a good way. He was beloved by the team, and he helped improve a weight room that was widely believed to be in need of a makeover. He also aided tight end Garry Gilliam in transitioning to right tackle, as he gained about 40 pounds in seven months' time.


Larry Johnson is the interim head coach now, and he's guiding a bare-bones staff of just two others: TE coach John Strollo and OL coach Mac McWhorter. They'll be charged with keeping this recruiting class together until a new head coach comes along.

This staff could have a whole new look in a week's time; it just received its first official change since O'Brien's departure on Monday afternoon.
Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler is so competitive and intense that a childhood friend wonders half-jokingly if a demon lives inside him.

Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, meanwhile, is California cool, an admittedly cerebral coach directing a scheme built on aggression.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's John Butler is emotional, animated, competitive and his players feed off that.
Butler can't be missed on the Penn State sideline, a ball of energy whose animated style makes players feel like he's one of them. Aranda is more Zen-like, bringing a teacher's approach that connects with bright Badger defenders as he conveys messages without veins bulging from his neck.

Butler and his boss, Bill O'Brien, are near replicas, fiery Irishmen from hardboiled Eastern cities who share a relentless drive to succeed. Aranda and his boss, Gary Andersen, first met in Maui of all places. They both have backgrounds in defense but are, as Andersen puts it, "polar opposites."

The obvious differences between Butler and Aranda shouldn't overshadow the fact that both first-year Big Ten defensive coordinators are rising stars, rocketing up the coaching ladder. They're highly respected among their peers and viewed as likely future head coaches.

Both men also will be put to the test this week, as they lead defenses against two strong opponents -- No. 20 Wisconsin visits Arizona State and Penn State hosts UCF -- led by standout quarterbacks (ASU's Taylor Kelly, UCF's Blake Bortles).

"This is why you do it, man," Butler told "As a competitor, when the competition improves, you better improve your game or you're going to get embarrassed."

Butler and Keith Conlin rarely were embarrassed as young athletes growing up just outside Philadelphia. In fact, they rarely lost at anything. Conlin and Butler met in first grade and played together on every team and in every sport.

They won titles in everything, thanks to Conlin, a self-described "mutant athlete" who went on to be an All-Big Ten offensive lineman at Penn State, and Butler, who eventually played football and basketball at Division III Catholic University. But they didn't win every game.

"Imagine the kid who would sulk and cry after games when you lose, but during the game was going to do whatever it took to win," Conlin said of Butler. "He wasn't the crybaby who lost and [said], 'I'm going to take my ball and go home.' He was literally mad because we lost. Losing is probably the worst thing he could possibly have in his world.

"It's almost like a demon he has, his drive and competitiveness."

It's also an asset that helped Butler rise from modest coaching origins -- Midwestern State, Texas State and Harvard -- to the Big Ten (Minnesota) in 2007, to the SEC (South Carolina) in 2011 and back to the Big Ten last year as Penn State's secondary coach and special teams coordinator. When defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for Georgia Tech in January, O'Brien immediately promoted Butler, who vaulted veteran Lions assistants Larry Johnson (defensive line) and Ron Vanderlinden (linebackers) for the role.

O'Brien's rationale: "He's just a coordinator, that's what he is. ... I knew if the coordinator job ever opened up, he would be the guy."

The transition was quick. Minutes after Roof informed the staff of his move, O'Brien walked into Butler's office.

"Billy said, 'This is the move I want to make,'" Butler recalled. "I told him, 'That's great. Let's move on.' I've prepared myself for this for a long time."

[+] EnlargeDave Aranda
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin's Dave Aranda and his network of connections have risen through the coaching ranks.
Preparation is at the core of Aranda's approach. He has his principles -- multiple fronts, varied blitzes, a focus on takeaways -- but constantly keeps his ears open.

If there's a new approach, Aranda, 37, wants to learn it, even if he never employs it in a practice or a game.

"Professional development for him is very important," Andersen said. "He's a great researcher, very detailed. He's always out there looking for new things. He's much better at that than I was as a coordinator. I probably got a little set in my ways.

"If he's in a city where there's a football program, it doesn't matter if it's NFL, Division I or Division II, he's going to see if he can learn something from somebody."

This summer, Aranda dropped in on the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars, in addition to college teams like Ohio and Eastern Michigan.

"Outside of my family, about the only other people I talk to are other defensive coaches," Aranda said. "You try to get as many questions answered prior to having to answer them in games."

Andersen and Aranda first met at a high school camp in Maui. They both embraced what Andersen calls "the aggressive side of defense" -- capitalizing on blitz opportunities and gearing a scheme toward forcing turnovers. Aranda, like Butler, worked his way through the lower ranks (California Lutheran, Delta State, Southern Utah) before getting his big break at Hawaii.

Andersen watched Aranda's first coordinator stint -- Hawaii led the nation in takeaways in 2010 and finished 15th nationally in sacks the following year -- and in 2012 brought him to Utah State, essentially to replace himself as the defensive play-caller. Since Andersen made no other changes, Aranda took over a defensive staff as the only newcomer.

"There's no pretense," Aranda said. "I've always thought that it's not whose ideas that matter; it's just that it works."

After coordinating a Utah State defense that last season finished in the top 15 in points allowed, sacks, rushing yards allowed, pass efficiency and total yards allowed, Aranda received offers from two major-conference schools -- reportedly Cal and Texas Tech – but he chose to stay at Utah State. But that was before Andersen landed the Wisconsin job.
"A lot of people would say it was kind of crazy," Andersen said, "but he said no because he felt like that was where he needed to be. I respected that, so when we had the opportunity to come here, [bringing Aranda] was a slam dunk."

O'Brien and Butler didn't know each other well before O'Brien landed the Penn State job, but they had a mutual connection in strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, who had met O'Brien at Maryland and had attended high school with Butler and Conlin. O'Brien brought both Fitzgerald and Butler in from South Carolina.

After meeting O'Brien, Conlin wondered how Butler would mesh with his new boss.

"How [O'Brien] was emotionally so driven in everything he does, I was like, 'Man, they’re either going to be best friends or the most hated enemies of all time,'" Conlin said.

It turned out to be the former. Both men are in their early forties. O'Brien grew up north of Boston in Andover, Mass. Butler lived in Boston while working at Harvard and said the city's energy reminds him of Philly.

"He's a quick-minded guy, a hardworking guy," O'Brien said. "We believe in the same things football-wise."

Added Butler: "It ended up being an excellent match."

Butler's style clicked with Penn State's players, whose competitive spirit carried them through a summer of sanctions and a season with no bowl or championship possibilities. The Lions won eight of their final 10 games last fall and the secondary, labeled as the defense's weak link, held its own.

"He's pumped up, just like all of us," defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. "He's just out there, all loud and running around. I love it."

Butler hasn't pumped the brakes on his approach, despite his increased responsibilities. Competitiveness is non-negotiable for his players, although he has learned over time that it takes on different forms.

"Whether you're overtly competitive, which maybe I am, as opposed to internally competitive, which a lot of other people are, that spirit shows through in all of our guys," he said.

Butler, 40, oversees two of the nation's most accomplished assistants in Johnson and Vanderlinden, the only two holdovers from Joe Paterno's staff. Despite the experience gap, the transition "came natural," Butler said, and Penn State has surrendered only 24 points, 22 first downs and 132 rush yards in its first two games.

Conlin, who has seen Butler's evolution and maturation firsthand, has no doubt his friend will eventually lead a program.

"I don't know when, I don't know where," Conlin said, "but I wouldn't want to be playing against him. There's going to be 11 guys out there who will cut your heart out to win that game."

Andersen also sees Aranda as a future head coach, but hopes to keep him for "a while." Like Butler, Aranda has had early success, as the Badgers have yet to allow a point in two games.

And like Butler, Aranda will be challenged Saturday. Arizona State ranked 14th nationally in scoring last season and put up 55 in its opener. Aranda faced the same Todd Graham offense in the 2010 Hawaii Bowl, when Graham's Tulsa team put up 62 points against Hawaii.

"I think about that a lot," he said. "So it’s exciting for me to get back in it and give it a go. It's a challenge, the stuff as a coach you look forward to."

Maybe Aranda and Butler aren't so different after all.

Don’t limit yourselves to the stereotypes that the media has created for you. Don’t listen to what the outside world tells you football players are supposed to do. Aspire to something greater.

-- John Urschel, July 25, Big Ten kickoff luncheon

The term student-athlete has balance in lettering -- seven letters to each word -- but not much else, especially when it comes to big-time college football. Most of the men who fall under the NCAA-driven label are, in reality, more athletes than students, even if they try to be both. They're more about the moment or the near future than the long term. Their wish list includes an NFL contract, not a Ph.D certificate.

Penn State guard John Urschel arguably tips the scale the other way.

[+] EnlargeJohn Urschel
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsJohn Urschel earned his mathematics degree in three years, already completed a master's in math, and is working toward another master's.
Although he's a first-team All-Big Ten lineman for the Nittany Lions, his accomplishments as a student outweigh those as an athlete. He's a first-team Academic All-American and a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection who carries a 4.0 grade-point average, earned his mathematics degree in three years, already completed a master's in math and is working toward another master's. Last spring, Urschel had a paper entitled "Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem" published in the journal, Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy.

He taught an undergraduate math class (MATH 041, trigonometry and analytic geometry) this spring, won the Big Ten Medal of Honor in June, and enters his senior season as a leading candidate for the William V. Campbell Trophy, better known as the Academic Heisman.

"John is one of the more intelligent guys I’ve ever been around," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien recently told "He's got it all."

Speaking on behalf of the players at the Big Ten's annual kickoff luncheon, Urschel eloquently outlined four things he wished he had been told before he started his college football career. They were: master your craft on the field, make a mark in the community, help young players along their journey and prepare for the day when your football career ends.

"Because our careers are so short and our lives hopefully long," Urschel told a large, captive audience at the Hilton Chicago, "planning and preparing for life without football is the most important of these four, and also the easiest to neglect."

Urschel never has neglected his future. While he might have wished for a primer on the four-point path to success when he arrived in State College, he has followed it every step of the way.

Bryce Hopkins knew Urschel had unique intellect when he met Urschel on the junior-varsity team at Canisius High School in Buffalo, N.Y. Hopkins, then a sophomore, played center for the jayvee, while Urschel, a freshman, occupied a tackle spot. Urschel's mind actually worked to his detriment early in his career as he tended to overthink things rather than just reacting to them.

He had another problem, too.

"He was such a nice guy and had difficulty separating his off-the-field persona from his on-field persona," said Hopkins, who later coached Urschel on the Canisius varsity squad. "He would pancake a kid, and as soon as he was finished pancaking him, he would help the kid up. Our coach was like, 'John, go onto the next play, don't worry about it.'

"Once John got up to the varsity level and he saw how quick and how athletic he was, he was able to use his intellect to read a defense and identify the techniques defensive linemen are using, identify things like blitzing tendencies. It allowed him to go to the next level."

Urschel had a relatively late start to his football career and didn't expect to have a long-term future in the game. He blossomed late in his high school career and seemed ticketed for Princeton before Penn State extended a scholarship offer after his senior season, weeks before signing day.

"There were some better academic schools," Urschel said, "but I would have been hard-pressed to find a better balance of academics and athletics, to be honest. Football's something I take very seriously, and I told my parents that there would be time for me to go to a Princeton or a Stanford or an MIT for graduate work.

"That is in my future. After football, I'll go back to academics."

That time will come after Urschel's football career, which could last a while. He started applying his smarts to the game at Canisius. Hopkins recalls Urschel telling the coaching staff to switch into different run plays because the defensive tackles were playing 2-technique rather than 1-technique.

O'Brien has been around bright offensive linemen in the NFL -- Matt Light, Dan Koppen and Logan Mankins, to name a few -- and subscribes to the notion that the game's smartest players tend to play in the front five.

"There are a lot of things that happen up front in football now, where you have to communicate really fast and clearly," he said. " A lot of times what I’ve found in football is if a guy’s that smart -- and [Urschel] is a brilliant guy -- usually that doesn't correlate to being an instinctive, smart football player. It just doesn’t come as easily. That's not the case with John. He understands football just as well as he understands math."

Urschel's Twitter handle, not surprisingly, is @mathmeetsfball. But he's not all above the neck.

Few players have bought into Penn State's transformative strength and conditioning program under Craig Fitzgerald more than Urschel, who squats 500 pounds and bench-presses more than 400.

"He might be our strongest player overall," O'Brien said.

The coach adds, "He's got a great shot to play pro football."

The 6-foot-3, 301-pound Urschel, who grew up admiring former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, expects to continue his career at the pro level. But he remains humble about his football success, joking during a recent chat with fans that he might have an easier path to the CFL because he was born in Winnipeg and carries dual citizenship.

Urschel is more confident about his future in academics -- Princeton and MIT definitely are on his radar -- and for good reason.

"It’s not very common for a Master's student to publish a paper," said Ludmil Zikatanov, a mathematics professor at Penn State who advises Urschel. "That shows he's very good. I don’t think he’s typical. He’s better than most. Publishing a paper based on your thesis is an excellent achievement."

Zikatanov is working with Urschel to get another paper published, this time on applications of graph theory. Urschel spent part of his summer working with undergrads on the basics of graph theory, helping them prepare for graduate research.

See if you can spot the All-Big Ten offensive lineman among Penn State's roster of mathematics grad students.

"He's just a guy who has talent in math and apparently talent in football," Zikatanov said. "This not a common quality, but I wouldn't say I was very surprised. He's a very capable man. I can see him defending his Ph.D. I’m not going to say it's easy, but he would be able to do that. I know that he wants to play for the NFL and then continue his studies. I think he will be successful in studying math after that.

"Whether he's in academia or industry, he's just a good mathematician."

Urschel is more than a good student-athlete. He strikes the balance so many strive for but can't reach for various reasons, many outside of their own control. The math whiz has solved the student-athlete equation.

"You can’t tell me when an NFL general manager sits down with him at the combine or during pre-draft meetings, they're not going to fall in love with a guy who's so smart, such a great character," Hopkins said. "Some NFL GM is going to want to make him the face of the franchise."

He's certainly one of the faces of Penn State, and the Big Ten, as he gears up for his final college season.

"In each of us lies great talent that extends far beyond our exploits on the gridiron," Urschel said to conclude his speech in Chicago. "Our whole is much more than the sum of our physical parts, and I have no doubt that this generation of football players, like those who have come before us, and those who will come after us, will make contributions to this world that far exceeds the limit of the football field."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Players' tweets start up a little after 4:30 a.m., that strange time when it's not quite day and not quite night. Traffic lights blink yellow along College Avenue, and -- outside of a whirring Herr's potato chip truck -- the roads are silent.

Penn State workout
Josh Moyer/ESPNPenn State's players participated in an early workout Friday.
On this starless night ... or morning (take your pick) ... players pry their heads off their pillows and descend on the nearby Lasch Football Building. Streetlights around town still shine, and not a single student is spotted walking on a campus that holds more than 40,000.

But Garry Gilliam, a tight end turned offensive tackle, is up. He tweeted, at 4:39 a.m, "They sleep, we grind. They dream, we shine."

On this Friday, Penn State football players' days have already started. In about 30 minutes, their morning workouts will begin.

5:12 a.m.

Bill O'Brien walks onto the field with a whistle draped around his neck. The players are still inside the building, throwing on their gray T-shirts and blue shorts, and Penn State's dimple-chinned coach awaits them in the 31-degree weather.

Four bright stadium lights for the practice field are flipped on, and snow covers the perimeter of the turf. O'Brien chats with the staff and grad assistants, who constantly shift their weight from one leg to another to stay warm. He's cracking jokes, smiling and seems to be acting as if it's 3 p.m. He's ready.

"We should've had this at 3," he says with a nod.

About five minutes later, players burst from the weight room doors. Some hold their hands in the air, almost as if they're running through the south tunnel of Beaver Stadium. They yell, they chatter, they run.

The nearby stereo starts blaring LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem," and the drills begin.

5:28 a.m.

Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, an eccentric-but-beloved guy who's been known to lick the weight room floor and do the worm in pregames, is dressed in his trademark shorts, backward hat and T-shirt.

Players break into six groups. Some flip tires, others weave through cones, and others stretch. Fitzgerald guides about a dozen to the northwest corner of the field. If he pumps his arms left, they go left. Right, they go right. Down? Their stomachs kiss the turf.

But O'Brien isn't liking what he's seeing. He cuts the music, and the entire field falls silent like a third-grade classroom that's ticked off the schoolteacher for the last time.

"I don't see the intensity I'm expecting!" O'Brien barks. "Let's do it!"

The pace noticeably picks up.

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Before leaving Penn State for a new home at USC, running back Silas Redd left Bill Belton with a simple message.

"He said, 'It's your time now. You've got to move forward and prepare yourself for the big games coming up this year,'" Belton recalled.

Belton has done just that.

Football is a game of opportunity, whether it comes by virtue of injury, academic missteps or, in Penn State's case, historic NCAA sanctions that prompted a wave of transfers. Redd, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011, was among those to depart Happy Valley, leaving Penn State with a sizable void in the backfield.

Belton is working to fill it for the 2012 season. Despite little experience as a primary running back, Belton locked up the starting job in preseason camp.

"He's definitely cemented himself as a starter at this point," coach Bill O'Brien said last week. "Other guys will play, but Billy will start the game. ... Billy's a good football player."

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBill Belton saw time as a receiver and Wildcat quarterback last season but will start at tailback as a sophomore for Penn State this fall.
After playing wide receiver and some Wildcat quarterback as a true freshman in 2011, Belton transitioned to running back this spring. Little did he know how much his move would mean. Redd's departure, along with the losses of Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, leave Penn State without a back who recorded more than 50 carries in 2011. Curtis Dukes, who missed spring practice because of academic issues, logged 41 carries for 237 yards last fall. Penn State's next-most-productive ball-carrier? Belton, with 13 carries for 65 yards, many as the speedy triggerman for the Wildcat offense.

Regardless of his inexperience as a primary running back -- Belton played quarterback for Winslow Township High School in Atco, N.J. -- he impressed O'Brien this spring and continued to do so after Redd's departure July 31.

"Sy was big here," Belton said of Redd, who rushed for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns last fall. "Silas is a great friend of mine and I wish him the best of luck. But I'm definitely ready for the opportunity moving forward."

Belton prepared himself in the weight room this summer with new strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. Running backs coach Charles London told Belton about the physical toll pass protection takes on running backs. Like Redd, who transformed his body between the 2010 and 2011 seasons to take the pounding, Belton "leaned up" and added muscle mass.

Although he actually was a bit heavier in 2011 and hopes to play around 203 pounds this season, Belton is confident in his progress.

"I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life right now," he said.

Penn State will lean on Belton for carries behind a potentially improved offensive line, but the sophomore's versatility could be his biggest asset for the offense. The receiver position returns almost no experience, and while Belton recorded only one reception in 2011, he can help the passing game.

"That adds a dimension to the game," Belton said. "You've got to account for the backs, too."

O'Brien said Belton recorded an 80-yard touchdown run in a scrimmage early in camp and has improved his pass protection. Asked how many carries he can handle, Belton said as many as the coaches give him.

"You strive to be the best," he said. "That's basically what I’m trying to do this year. I'm definitely looking forward to September 1st "