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When Jimmy Gaines said that he looked up to John Urschel during their scholastic football careers at Canisius High School, the statement jolted Urschel -- he didn't expect to be informed of such a compliment during an interview.

But the 6-foot-3, 292-pound right guard quickly regained his composure and delivered the type of answer one would expect from a well-spoken young man who carries a perfect 4.0 grade-point average at Penn State.

"Jimmy was such a great kid and hard worker. For him to think that is a great honor," the math major said. "To be perfectly honest, I think Jimmy is one of the best football players I've ever met."

Urschel, who graduated from Canisius in 2009, a year before Gaines, wasn't just saying that to be kind. He meant every word because Gaines is also a legitimate big-time talent.

It's not often high school teammates from Western New York wind up being significant contributors to programs in BCS conferences, but Gaines (ACC) and Urschel (Big Ten) -- proud Crusaders -- will be doing just that this season.

Gaines is on the path to start at inside linebacker for the University of Miami -- the same school that has produced Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Michael Irvin and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens.

"It's great that we both have the chance to start and contribute this season," Gaines said in an email. "It impacts Western New York a lot. It lets recruiters know that there is some talent in Western New York football. It also lets Western New Yorkers know that if they work hard, it's a tough road, but they can make it."

It's a message that has been received in the Monsignor Martin Association, where current seniors from Canisius' longtime rivals, Chad Kelly (St. Joe's) and Akeel Lynch (St. Francis), have already verbally committed to major college programs (Clemson and Boston College, respectively).

But Urschel and Gaines are currently Western New York's big men on campus.

Gaines, who had an interception during the team's first scrimmage two weeks ago and appeared in six games last year (assisting on a tackle), has caught the eye of new head coach Al Golden and his staff of assistants. The 6-2, 220-pound speedy sophomore has been taking first-team reps throughout training camp as he's not only gotten physically stronger but has shown he has a better understanding of defense compared to last year. The 2009 First Team All-Western New York selection is battling two others for the right to line up with the first-team defense in the opener Sept. 5 at Maryland.

"Jimmy's doing a good job for us," Golden said during an interview on the Miami website. "We'll see how that shakes out but we're trying to build that depth at that linebacker position and those three young guys [Gaines, Gionni Paul and Jordan Futch] will be a part of that."

Urschel, who calls the Beaver Stadium game-day experience of walking out of the tunnel onto the field with more than 100,000 fans in the stands "surreal," is on course to line up with the first-team offense when the Nittany Lions open Sept. 3 at home against Indiana State. Penn State hosts Alabama the following Saturday.

"We're still working hard [in two-a-days]," said Urschel, a red-shirt sophomore who appeared in three games last year, playing a season-high 66 snaps in a win over Indiana. "Competition is really the only way you push yourself to get better so I'm just trying to improve every day, especially as we get close to the season."

Urschel, who earned the Trench Trophy as WNY's top lineman and all-state honors as a high school senior, is used to pushing himself. He is scheduled to graduate next spring. He'll then work on getting his Master's degree during his final two years of athletic eligibility before moving on to a different school to pursue a Ph.D in math (unless an NFL opportunity presents itself and causes him to call an audible).

The math translates to the football field. Urschel said it helps him quickly recognize whether or not he needs to adjust his blocking scheme on the fly depending on the defense's formation versus a certain play.

Urschel, who's been interested in math since he was 5 years old, said the academics wasn't the hardest part of his transition to college life.

It's the time he must devote to football -- which besides practice and team meetings includes weight lifting, the ice bath to promote body healing, keeping close tabs on his diet and watching film.

Yes, his day is quite busy once you factor in academics, and he doesn't believe in all-nighters, either.

"It's a little policy I have to keep me sharp," Urschel said of making sure he gets a full eight hours of sleep a night.

Urschel, who added 10-15 pounds of muscle during the offseason, spent the summer at Penn State working out and attending classes. But Western New York isn't far from his thoughts and the fact he's a role model adds to his on-field motivation.

"I'm really grateful I can be a positive influence on the Western New York area and be a positive influence on the kids," he said. "You go away, make people back home proud of you, it really shows just how good Western New York [as a community] is."

email: mrodriguez@buffnews.com