Penn State's coaches have been talking all week about playing disciplined football against Navy, but the Nittany Lions might have a hard time truly appreciating the kind of discipline the Midshipmen need to practice in their everyday routines.
Senior fullback P.J. Byers is set to become an officer in the United States Navy.
Well, two of the Nittany Lions might be able to.
Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game against Navy will mark the first time a Penn State team has played one of the service academies since 1979. It will also carry a special significance for senior fullback P.J. Byers and freshman defensive end Brent Smith.
"I've been looking forward to it for a while," Byers said. "It's going to be a really good experience for the team."
Byers, 27, is an active duty member of the Navy's officer program. After he graduates from Penn State, he'll have one more year of training and then will be commissioned as an officer. He hopes to get a position with the Navy's explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) unit, especially after training with some of that unit in San Diego a few years ago.
Byers played his freshman season of college football at Marietta College in Ohio in 2003 before heading to boot camp. His sophomore year was 2010, when he walked on to the Nittany Lions.
Smith, also 27, is a former United States Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq from 2005-07. He knew he wanted to get his degree at Penn State after returning to the states and had been taking classes online through the university's world campus. While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, last year, he began emailing Penn State's coaching staff about the prospect of joining the team as a walk-on.
He had an interview with the coaches the second week of preseason camp and a few days later had joined the squad -- nearly a decade after the last time he had played organized football, earning all-conference honors at Hughesville High School.
Smith had a lot more life experience than his new teammates but, in many ways, was feeling his way just as they were.
"It is a different dynamic," said Smith, who plans to get a secondary education degree and teach social studies. "I have classes with some of the freshman guys. They look up to me a little bit differently than they look up to a sophomore or a junior or even a senior, but I still am a freshman. I'm at the same level as they are when it comes to learning football."
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Smith had to re-train his body, too.
"When you're in shape for the corps, it's carrying weight and running with weight on," Smith said. "You'll have 80 pounds of ammo, 10 pounds of water, you're carrying a backpack, an M16. It's a different process. It's a lot of hikes and long distance runs compared to football shape, which is explosion and sprints. Mentally it's equally as difficult, going out here at training camp and infantry school. The playbook is a whole other language. I'm replacing military acronyms with defensive signals."
Byers, who went through a similar process two years earlier, and Smith gravitated toward each other and quickly formed a friendship.
"I knew exactly who he was when he came up," Byers said. "Before he said anything, I knew he was prior military, because they have that aura about them. You could just tell he carried himself well, a confidence level that not too many people carry. They're here to do something and no one can really stop them, that kind of mentality."
"Because we had the same lifestyle, we can joke around a little bit," Smith said. "And usually other people are like, 'I don't know what you're joking about.'"
The rest of the Nittany Lions have a respect for two players who probably won't see the field on game days this season -- they're both members of the scout team -- both because of what they've already accomplished and the approach they bring to the practice field each day.
"They're going to bring a great attitude to the team," senior center Matt Stankiewitch said. "Knowing we have such high-character guys on this team just rubs off on other people and it's going to make us better."
Smith figures several of his friends in the military, including a few he was stationed with in Okinawa, will be in the stands in Beaver Stadium this weekend when Penn State takes on Navy. He and Byers will be expecting a tough test from the Midshipmen, if only because they know how the elements that unite a group of soldiers can also unite a football team.
"It's taking a challenge, pushing it forward, taking on a new task every day. Completion of a mission. We have one mission here, and that's winning every game," Byers said. "As one team we work toward that mission, just like that dive team would work toward one goal."