Former walk-on Della Valle makes hay at PSU
UNIVERSITY PARK — A gregarious, tough-as-nails player who has become a valuable and regular contributor at a level many doubted he could ascend to, and popular with his teammates and coaches alike?
Could describe more than one Pennsylvania athlete.
Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop drew parallels between two.
“Jesse Della Valle,” Shoop said, “is my Josh Harrison.”
Shoop, an Oakmont native, is a Pirates fan. So is Della Valle, who graduated from Shaler.
A former walk-on who said one of his top alternatives to working his way up the Penn State depth chart was a scholarship offer from Robert Morris, the 6-foot-1, 203-pound fifth-year senior smiles when told of Shoop's Harrison comparison.
“Definitely take that as a compliment,” said Della Valle, who plays at both safety spots, in certain nickel and dime packages and on every special teams unit. “That's something that I try to do, be that utility man, a guy who can play multiple positions and do whatever the team needs.”
The 5-8 Harrison, in Single-A at the time, was perceived from the outside as the throw-in when the Pirates traded two pitchers to the Cubs for Harrison and two others July 30, 2009.
That fall, Della Valle had 1,600 all-purpose yards and 28 touchdowns for Shaler. But that wasn't enough to earn a scholarship offer from big FBS programs.
“It was take-your-shot at Penn State, or take a full scholarship at a smaller school,” Della Valle said. “I went my way and tried to play at the highest level, and I think it's paid off for me.”
Della Valle, awarded a scholarship prior to Bill O'Brien's first season in 2012, appeared in all 24 Nittany Lions games the past two seasons on defense and special teams. He had 18 of PSU's 23 punt returns last season (33 of their 53 since 2012) and made his first two starts on defense last fall.
“He is very versatile,” Shoop said. “He is underrated, and he definitely gets most out of his ability. He's got a great attitude and has earned my and our staff's trust and respect.
“He definitely can do lots of things — just like ‘J-Hay.' ”
J-Hay is Harrison's nickname. Similar to Della Valle's ascension from walk-on to starter, Harrison became an MLB All-Star this season, posting impressive statistics while playing five positions.
Not unlike Della Valle.
“Jesse's a guy who's found a way to bring value to the organization,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Everybody respects him and his work ethic.”
His humor, too. On a whim, Della Valle once entered a short film contest in State College — and won honorable mention. The movie — chronicling a hike up Mount Nittany — was shown at the State Theatre downtown.
“A real movie theater,” Della Valle said, laughing. “I'm thinking, ‘People aren't even going to think this is funny.' But people were cracking up. I was pretty proud of myself.”
For an encore, Della Valle made a film following teammate and longtime friend and roommate Miles Dieffenbach winning the table tennis tournament at the Keystone State Games.
“He beat a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old — that was pretty funny,” Della Valle said. “It's something that we'll remember we did together.”
Still, Della Valle will remembered more for football than filmmaking.
“He really defines Pittsburgh,” said Dieffenbach, a guard from Fox Chapel. “True toughness. He doesn't have the greatest ability of the kids on the team — but he outworks everybody…
“He's an important player on our team. A good leader who guys respect a lot.”