An impressive week of practice helped land Jesse Della Valle his first career start last Saturday. And it sounds like it won’t be his last.
The junior was asked to fill a hole created when Adrian Amos was moved to cornerback again, starting at strong safety against Ohio State.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien hinted on his radio show Thursday that Della Valle will likely open there again this week against Illinois with Malcolm Willis starting at free safety and Ryan Keiser rotating in at times.
As was the case against the Buckeyes, the odd man out looks to be sophomore cornerback Trevor Williams.
Coming into the season, the coaching staff had been vocal in its support of Amos at safety, and it appears the move to corner — where he spent most of his time in 2011 and 2012 — is based predominately on need.
“I think it’s more about getting the right four guys back there,” O’Brien said Thursday when asked about if Amos was better suited to play corner. “I don’t know that it’s about his exact skillset. It’s more about our best four defensive backs.
“That’s (Jordan) Lucas and Amos at corner with probably Willis, Keiser and Jesse Della Valle — probably Della Valle — at safety. And then Keiser and Trevor Williams coming in.”
A former walk-on, Della Valle initially made his impact on special teams and ultimately established himself as the team’s top punt returner a year ago.
It’s a role he was happy to fill.
“I like playing football, period,” Della Valle said. “Anywhere I can get out there. That’s what I want to do. I came to Penn State to be a great student‑athlete and play football here. So that’s what I came to do any way I can do it, I’m happy with that.”
He began seeing more time in the secondary this season after Keiser suffered a broken hand against Kent State in September.
Though Keiser has returned to action, he remains limited by a cast he has had to wear following surgery. That has also kept him out of drills during practice, meaning that his contact is limited to Saturdays.
So that helped open the door further for Della Valle.
“Being able to be on the field a little bit more in the secondary, that was something I was excited about,” Della Valle said. “Just to be able to go out there with my teammates, run around, and make 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.
“It was something big for me, but I know personally of a lot of improvements to make in my own game. So that’s what I’m going to focus on from here on out.”
Smith likely set at tackle
One spot that probably won’t see any changes this week is left tackle.
There was a bit of a surprise on Monday when Penn State’s weekly depth chart showed both Donovan Smith and Garry Gilliam listed as potential starters at left tackle. Gilliam remained listed as a possible starter on the right side along with Adam Gress, as has been the case all season.
O’Brien then said that it was at least a possibility that Smith could start Saturday’s game on the sideline.
“We’ve made that a very competitive situation this week, and that’s why you see (that) there,” O’Brien said Tuesday. “So it could be Gress and Gilliam starting at tackle on Saturday. It could be Gress and Donovan. It could be Gilliam and Donovan. It could be a combination, but all three of those guys will play on Saturday.”
Gilliam, however, said this week that he hadn’t practiced at left tackle since the summer. Barring a sudden switch for him or Gress this week, Smith figures to be in his usual spot.
Urschel honored again
The accolades continue to build up for John Urschel. The senior guard was one of 16 college football players in the nation to receive an $18,000 scholarship for post-graduate studies from the National Football Foundation on Thursday.
Urschel is also a finalist for the Campbell Trophy as the nation’s top college football student-athlete.
“A great day for Penn State,” O’Brien said. “John’s just an unbelievable guy. One in a million. That’s what Penn State is all about.”