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Penn State notebook: Belton's return heats up backfield competition

| Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012, 6:40 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Penn State running back Bill Belton, who breaks away for a long gain during the Blue-White scrimmage on April 21, 2012, returned to practice this week. (Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review)

Bill Belton is expected to return from an ankle injury that has sidelined the sophomore since Sept. 1, giving coach Bill O'Brien a nice problem as he prepares for his inaugural Big Ten game.

Five running backs have seen extensive action this season because of injuries, and O'Brien is having them compete in practice for the two or three spots in the rotation he plans to use at Illinois.

“We've got a good situation there, with some tough kids that can run the ball, pass protect and catch the football,” O'Brien said Tuesday. “So we're going to continue to compete at that position. When Saturday rolls around, we'll see which ones are going to play.”

A different player has led Penn State (2-2) in rushing in every game through the first month of the season. Senior Michael Zordich has rushed for a team-high 133 yards, while averaging 4.6 yards per carry.

Zordich left Penn State's 24-13 win over Temple last Saturday with a minor knee injury and he didn't practice Monday. O'Brien anticipated Zordich practicing Tuesday, while Belton has practiced both days this week.

Derek Day (shoulder) and Curtis Dukes (thigh) have also dealt with injury issues, but each is expected to suit up at Illinois.

Jesse Della Valle was named Penn State special teams player of the week after the Shaler graduate returned three punts for 45 yards against Temple. Della Valle caught the attention of secondary coach John Butler, who also oversees special teams, during pregame warm-ups at Virginia, as he smoothly fielded punts. The former walk-on, who earned a scholarship this summer, has been Penn State's No. 1 punt returner since then. His 29-yard return against Temple set up the first score of the game. “Some guys have a knack for that,” O'Brien said of returning punts. “They can catch it, they can understand the return, they have good vision. He's got a little bit of a knack for it and we're going to stick with him.”

• In other injury news, defensive end Sean Stanley (back) is expected to return to the starting lineup after sitting out last week for precautionary reasons. Left tackle Donovan Smith (ankle) is on track to return to the starting lineup, O'Brien said. The redshirt freshman has missed the last two games. The news isn't as good for senior defensive end Pete Massaro, who likely will miss another week because of a shoulder injury.

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