Penn State starting role suits Della Valle
Neil Gordon remembers being annoyed throughout the summer and fall of 2009. Then in his 33rd season as a high school coach, a player Gordon called “one of my favorites of all time I've been around” wasn't getting the looks from the big schools Gordon felt he deserved.
“He's extremely talented. I was a little upset when, as a senior, he wasn't getting D-I recognition — or not much anyway,” Gordon said of Shaler's Jesse Della Valle. “I was fairly experienced in the whole thing. I tried to tell all the coaches, ‘This kid can play. I'm telling you. I know how things work.' ”
Last weekend, Della Valle passed another milestone that has proven the wily veteran coach was right all along.
Della Valle, a redshirt junior, made his first career start on defense in Penn State's loss at Ohio State. Running onto the field for the initial defensive snap with the Nittany Lions' first team at free safety was something the normally polite and reserved Della Valle acknowledged “was something big for me.”
“I was able to be on the field a little bit more in the secondary, so that was something I was excited about,” Della Valle said. “Just to be able to go out there with my teammates, running around, making some plays. I've been preparing every week just like the rest of our guys on the defense and on our team, so I felt prepared.”
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Della Valle tied for second on the team in total and solo tackles Saturday after spending much of the season buried on the depth chart of what began as one of the team's deepest positions.
“Jesse had a good week of practice, so we decided to go with him,” coach Bill O'Brien said after the Ohio State game. “Jesse is a tough kid from Pittsburgh.”
Gordon was not surprised Della Valle would impress.
“I think Coach O'Brien has used him as an example of what hard work and dedication will do for you,” Gordon said. “He can say, ‘Look at Jesse. He didn't have a scholarship, didn't have the fantastic D-I reputation coming out of high school, but through work ethic and dedication, look at him now.' ”
Della Valle was recruited mostly by FCS programs, many of which had a high academic pedigree (he was Academic All-Big Ten last season). At the behesting of Gordon, he elected to go to Penn State as a walk-on and play for Joe Paterno.
After a redshirt year, he barely saw the field in 2011. But Della Valle caught the eye of O'Brien and the new staff and earned a scholarship in summer 2012. Last season, he played in every game on defense and special teams. His role grew in the secondary, and he burst onto the scene as a return man.
Della Valle settled a Lions punt return that was a weakness early in the season, finishing third in the Big Ten in punt-return average.
He remained Penn State's primary punt returner this season, ranking third in the Big Ten (10.7-yard average) heading into the Lions' home game against Illinois (3-4, 0-3) at noon Saturday.
Early this season, Della Valle's reps on defense weren't coming as often as they had last year. But it was trust in Della Valle, in part, that allowed O'Brien and his staff to feel secure in moving Adrian Amos (to cornerback) and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (to linebacker) from safety even as Ryan Keiser continues to recover from a hand injury.