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Players from Western Pa. stepping up for PSU

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 11:14 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Penn State's Mike Hull (43), a Canon-McMillan product, blocks a pair of Temple defenders as Jesse Della Valle (39), from Shaler, returns a punt for 28 yards at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 22. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Tribune-Review
Penn State tight End Jesse James, who looks for yardage after catching a pass during the Blue-White scrimmage at Beaver Stadium on April 21, 2012, is one a handful of freshmen pushing for playing time. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

In the spirit of politics — the other full-contact sport in season — recent polling revealed that Penn State cornerback/punt returner Jesse Della Valle is the easiest to identify among the Nittany Lions players who hail from Western Pennsylvania.

“Usually it comes down to whose accent sticks out the most,” offensive tackle Mike Farrell said.

Polls are inherently unscientific, particularly when the only ones polled are Farrell and good friend and teammate Adam Gress.

What can't be questioned is that Della Valle and a handful of WPIAL products have stood out for Penn State, making contributions for a team that will try to extend its winning streak to four games Saturday against visiting Northwestern.

Farrell has been one of the anchors of an offensive line that has allowed just six sacks in five games. Right tackle Gress and left guard Miles Dieffenbach are also among the top six players on a unit that may comprise Penn State's best offensive line since the mid-1990s.

Della Valle has emerged as a trustworthy punt returner, and Mike Hull and Mike Yancich are key players on kick coverage teams that have drawn rave reviews from coach Bill O'Brien.

Hull also has played himself into a role of what O'Brien called a “semi-starter,” and the redshirt sophomore could serve as a prototype for players from Western Pennsylvania. Hull, who is athletic enough to play extensively on passing downs, is gritty, tough and solid both physically and from a fundamentals standpoint.

“Western Pa. kids come from a place where football is so important and they're coached really well,” O'Brien said. “When you coach a guy like that, that has such a passion for practice, for playing in a game, for having a role on a team, that's what makes college football so great. Like I've said from Day One, we've got to do a great job of recruiting this whole state, and we have to do an excellent job in Western Pa. of getting the best student-athletes there coming to Penn State.”

The area is enough of a priority that O'Brien has assigned two of his assistants to recruit it: running backs coach/recruiting coordinator Charles London and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher.

Fisher recruited Western Pennsylvania in the late 1990s when he was an assistant at North Carolina State. He said one thing that stands out doesn't show up in measurables such as 40-yard dash times.

“It comes down to, do you love football? Do you love to play, do you love to practice, do you like to compete?” Fisher said. “Western Pa. kids are like that.”

They also are responsible for some of the greatest plays in school history and upholding the tradition at Penn State's most storied position.

North Allegheny's Gregg Garrity caught the touchdown pass that propelled Penn State to the 1982 national championship, and the diving grab was immortalized on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Brandon Short (McKeesport), LaVar Arrington (North Hills) and Paul Posluszny (Hopewell) are among the Penn State linebackers who have earned first-team All-America honors since 1998. Sean Lee (Upper St. Clair) also is considered among the all-time greats at the position, and the Dallas Cowboys third-year linebacker has been playing at a Pro Bowl level.

The current Penn State players from Western Pennsylvania will share a unique and celebrated legacy since they are among those who stayed at Penn State despite NCAA sanctions. Such loyalty also extends to their high schools, and the Western Pennsylvania players try to stay updated on their former teams.

“When we're in the hotel Friday night, we're always checking up on (scores), talking about it, seeing how it's going,” Farrell said. “It's definitely something we're proud of and we want to represent well.”

Della Valle has done that while arguably coming the farthest of the Western Pennsylvania products on the roster. The redshirt sophomore joined Penn State's team as a preferred walk-on, and he earned a scholarship this summer.

He staked his claim to the job of punt returner during pregame warm-ups at Virginia in the second week of the season. Secondary coach John Butler, who also oversees special teams, told O'Brien that Della Valle had caught the ball the cleanest among the returners, and the 6-foot-1, 187-pounder has been Penn State's primary punt returner since.

His 29-yard return set up a touchdown in a Sept. 22 win against Temple, and Della Valle has embraced special teams duties that include covering kicks.

“I like to play a lot of special teams, fly around and play hard, and I think that's kind of what WPIAL football is all about, and that's how I was brought up,” Della Valle said. “We take pride in playing hard and being complete football players.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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