Penn State's best example of a run-on is Jesse Della Valle

Jesse Della Valle had the opportunity earn a scholarship -- and likely start -- at a number of Division 1A teams. He could have played at slot receiver or defensive back or perhaps even both.

But the kid from Western Pennsylvania -- a four-year starter on the basketball team, a hard-nosed football player whose high school statistics include 718 rushing yards, 726 receiving yards, 56 tackles, seven sacks and five interceptions -- wasn't sold.

"It was like are you going to take the money or are you going to take your dreams?" Della Valle said. "I was going to take my dreams."

Indeed, Della Valle's goal was to play big time football. So he took a preferred walk-on spot at Penn State, and two years later, he's reaping the benefits.

Bill O'Brien calls his walk-ons, "run-ons" now, and Della Valle might be the best example of the Nittany Lions' new breed of breakout stars. 

Della Valle, who redshirted as a freshman then appeared in just one game last season as a cornerback, has been Penn State's No. 1 punt returner since the Virginia game. His most productive outing yet was against Temple when he returned three punts for a combined 45 yards.

When O'Brien and his staff took over, everyone was given a clean slate.  One of the Nittany Lions' offseason needs was finding a new punt and kick returner.

"They didn't know any of us, we didn't know any of them," Della Valle said. "So they were just basing it off talent and that brings out the best in everyone because it's natural competition."

So it was an open audition and everyone -- including linebacker Gerald Hodges, who returned punts in the season-opener against Ohio -- was given a shot.

"They wanted a lot of guys back there," Della Valle said. "If you had any experience catching punts."

In warmups of the Virginia game, coaches noticed that Della Valle was catching the ball better than anyone. The Shaler Area graduate had some experience from high school -- he used some of the footage on his recruiting tapes -- so he gave it a go.

"It was a good opportunity for me," the redshirt sophomore said. 

Good opportunity? Della Valle went from seldom-used defensive back to starting punt returner in the span of six months. In early August, O'Brien -- noticing how valuable an all-purpose player like Della Valle is to a team that soon faces serious scholarship restrictions -- offered Della Valle a scholarship.

"He said I have a a role to play on this team," Della Valle said. "He's always been very honest with me." 

And right now, Della Valle is honestly Penn State's best option to return punts.

-Emily Kaplan