Discipline key as Seton-La Salle product balances CMU football, academics
It was a football season of mental adjustments for Will French. Mental challenges are nothing new to the Carnegie Mellon University junior.
French, a Seton-La Salle graduate, is a chemical engineering and public policy double major at CMU, one of the most rigorous academic institutions in the country.
The 6-foot-3, 265-pound French also is a starting offensive lineman on the Tartans’ football team and, by all accounts, a top-notch player.
So when CMU switched offenses prior to the 2014 season — going from a power running scheme to a spread attack — it meant learning an entirely new set of plays, formations and techniques.
“We transitioned into more of a spread offense, a passing-type attack,” French said. “Last year, we were running a lot of double-tight end sets, and we ran the ball probably 80 percent of the time. Now, we run the ball maybe 20 to 30 percent of the time. For me, that means we’re working on way more pass blocking. That involves a lot of detailed protections, sliding protections; the mental aspect of learning the new system was hard.”
Meanwhile, French also was learning a new position. After breaking into the starting lineup at right tackle in 2013, he was switched to left tackle this season.
“The position change, moving from right tackle to left, that was another challenge,” French said. “The left side is more of the ‘blind side,’ which I like. The biggest challenge was lining up on the left side. After playing right tackle, everything was backwards. But I like the move.”
CMU coach Rich Lackner said French adapted to the changes well, picked up what he needed to learn, and emerged as a top offensive lineman and team leader.
“With the new offense this year, the footwork is a little different, and he picked up everything very well,” Lackner said. “He’s a very coachable kid. He’s a Carnegie Mellon engineer, so there’s no question about his ability to learn, his mental capacity.
“But the thing that puts him over the top is his work ethic in practice. The way he approaches practice, approaches games, he takes football personally.”
CMU didn’t have the season that French nor Lackner expected. The Tartans beat Washington on Saturday, 17-16, to end up 4-6 overall and 3-5 in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference.
However, with 18 of 22 starters returning next year, the future is bright. And French will be a big part of that.
“He brings it all,” Lackner said. “He’s your typical Western Pennsylvania kid. He’s a tough kid, and he came to us well-coached from Seton-La Salle. He brings that Western Pennsylvania work ethic, and he plays with an attitude.
“He’s done a great job this year, and I think a lot of the younger guys are learning what it takes to be a good lineman by watching him.”
While his gridiron performance speaks for itself, perhaps even more impressive is his ability to dedicate so much time and effort to football while simultaneously maintaining a 3.6 grade-point average in a program that is beyond grueling.
French was named to the College Sports Information Directors of America Capital One Academic All-District Team and is now eligible for Academic All-American consideration.
To be nominated for all-district consideration, a player must be a starter or “significant” reserve, and must maintain a GPA of 3.3 or better.
“It was definitely unexpected, but it is definitely great honor,” French said. “Obviously, the other guys I play with deserve just as much credit.
“Carnegie Mellon is a tough place to be academically, and chemical engineering and public policy are rough programs, but I really do love it. The key is you have to know how to be disciplined, how to balance football and work. “
Lackner said French is a true student athlete — which is the top quality Carnegie Mellon looks for in its football players.
“They all do a great job of balancing academics and football. Typically, the grade point average of our football team is higher than the grade point average of the university as a whole,” Lackner said.
“I admire the young men on this football team who are studying things like bio-medical engineering, chemical engineering, computer science — while also doing what it takes to play college football. They are able to be so extremely disciplined.”
At the Division III level, players like French do not receive athletic scholarships. So, why take on the burden and commitment that comes with football?
Why not just focus on academics?
“It is a lot of work, and we had bigger crowds at our games at Seton-La Salle than we do here, so we’re not doing it for the attention,” French said. “But the one thing I’ve really learned is how much I truly love football.
“I had a moment earlier this year when I went right between the center and a guard, hit a linebacker and pancaked him. I looked up and saw the running back 15 yards down the football field. I realized how great this is — there’s just something about football. It’s just something you have to play to understand.”
French received another accolade earlier this week. He was an honorable mention selection on the 2014 All-PAC football team.
Brian Knavish is a freelance writer.