Penn State’s top punt returner from last season currently has six returns for 132 yards, including one for 62, in 2012.
Those are all for Oklahoma.
After Justin Brown transferred to the Sooners this summer, the Nittany Lions have tried to replace him with some interesting names.
They tried Gerald Hodges, a senior linebacker who lined up deep twice against Ohio and fumbled once. They tried Nyeem Wartman, a true freshman linebacker. They tried Evan Lewis, who kicked for the Lions in 2011, and he still sees a little time fielding punts.
But they also tried Jesse Della Valle, a redshirt sophomore who only played in one game for Penn State before this season.
The team was in Charlottesville, Va., preparing to play Virginia when John Butler, who oversees special teams, approached coach Bill O’Brien.
“He came in the locker room before the game and said, ‘Look, Jesse is catching the ball the best in warmups,’ ” O’Brien said. “That was a tough environment. Virginia is a very tough environment.”
Della Valle returned only one punt for four yards in that game, but O’Brien and Butler obviously saw something in the redshirt sophomore that made them want to stick with him.
“Jesse was cool and calm and catching all kinds of ever different punts, punts that were deep, punts that were short, and he was catching it the most consistent,” O’Brien said. “So we went with him, and he did a nice job in that game.”
He didn’t get an opportunity against Navy, which only punted the ball once, but he returned three punts for 45 yards against Temple.
With Illinois looming, O’Brien said it’s Della Valle’s job to lose.
“Last week I thought he did a really good job. Some guys have a knack for that,” O’Brien said. “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. He's done a nice job on that.”
Della Valle is just another example of Penn State ball handlers in 2012 who walked out of oblivion at some point in their career to make an impact. Before the 2010 season, not many people would have thought Matt McGloin would be the quarterback of the future when he was competing against the likes of Kevin Newsome, Paul Jones and Rob Bolden — all highly touted prospects.
Before 2011, few would have thought Bill Belton would be the future running back when Silas Redd had become the starter. Hardly anyone knew the names of guys like Allen Robinson, Kyle Carter or Alex Kenney when guys like Brown, Devon Smith and Shawney Kersey would certainly be staples in 2012.
And now there’s Della Valle, who would likely have never touched a punt this season had Brown stuck around. The Lions have made a habit of bringing hidden potential to fruition in formerly unknown players.
“He’s a special kid,” cornerback Stephon Morris said of Della Valle. “He did a really good job in the secondary during spring ball. He was called upon in the UVA game and he did a hell of a job, and he’s still doing a hell of a job.
“I believe he has the best ball skills out of everyone in the secondary.”
Morris added that Della Valle, listed as a cornerback, could see more time in the secondary as the season progresses. He has two tackles this season.
But for now, Della Valle has begun to settle into his new job.
“You never know,” Della Valle said. “I like it as my role, so that’s my role on the team. So that’s something important I can do.”
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