UNIVERSITY PARK — With 10 opponents bearing down on him — their mission to disrupt his concentration, throw off his timing and batter his body when appropriate — Jesse Della Valle is concentrating on a football that’s 40 to 50 yards in the sky.
He has to worry about catching it first, then he can turn his focus on the opposing gunners, who mean to cut him down.
It’s really a two-step thought process Della Valle has to go through in a matter of seconds. He can’t miss the ball but he can’t afford to misread how much room he has to run. Should he call for a fair catch? It’s always a viable question as any error — a loss of concentration or a misjudgment of the spacing between himself and the defenders — could lead to a disastrous turnover.
Welcome to the inner thought process of a punt returner.
“I’d say punt returning deals with a lot of focus,” Della Valle said. “I really try to focus on first off catching the ball, second off getting a return out of it. The field possession game is something that’s really important to our team so I know that making sure that I do catch the ball first is something that’s really important for the field-position game.”
Della Valle has returned seven punts for an average of 13 yards per return. He’s typically been assigned punt return detail alongside true freshman Von Walker, who has returned two for an average of 8 1/2 yards. Penn State fields a two-returner scheme with both Della Valle and Walker back deep.
So far, Della Valle hasn’t had to do much mentoring of Walker, a run-on player from Central Mountain, who excelled in every phase of the game for the Wildcats.
“Von’s a good player regardless if he’s a young guy or not,” Della Valle said. “So I have trust in him and he has trust in me and we just kind of judge it to whoever the ball’s getting kicked to and the other guy blocks for him, so it really helps out to have two guys back there.”
It’s a scheme Della Valle’s grown used to.
He emerged as Penn State’s primary punt returner last season after the Nittany Lions used a handful of players including Mike Hull, Gerald Hodges, Evan Lewis and Nyeem Wartman back deep. Della Valle finished the season with 15 returns for 114 yards.
“You’ve got to kind of have a feel for everything obviously because there’s so much going on especially on a punt,” Della Valle said. “First thing’s first, it’s most important to catch the ball. Other than that it’s just kind of instincts. You just kind of feel where people are and try to get up field a little bit.”
And while Della Valle’s efforts in the return game have been solid enough to earn him a fifth-place ranking in the conference — he’s nearly doubled his return average through four games this season — he could see extended playing time elsewhere on Saturday.
Safety Ryan Keiser, who typically plays a backup role but sees the field primarily in Penn State’s dime defense, will have to sit out on Saturday after injuring a hand against Kent State.
Della Valle, who primarily played cornerback last season, switched to safety this past spring. He could be in line for his most extended action to date on the defensive side of the ball against Indiana’s high-powered passing attack.
“I’m obviously a backup safety, so I have to be prepared regardless of who we’re playing,” Della Valle said. “So I’ve been watching a lot of film and Indiana is a team that likes to throw the ball, so as a secondary we’re doing a lot of things to prepare for them.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.