Penn State’s coaches held an extensive search to find reliable kick and punt returners, with every option under 250 pounds considered.
The process is evolving. What seems settled one game might be nixed a week later.
But when Penn State plays Northwestern on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, two sophomores will serve as returners.
Alex Kenney is listed as Penn State’s top kick returner, while Jesse Della Valle returns punts.
Both players receive help. Della Valle stood deep with Kenney last week at Illinois. Evan Lewis served as Della Valle’s cohort on punts.
Kenney and Della Valle joined the program in 2010 with contrasting backgrounds and expectations.
Kenney was the burner of a highly-regarded 2010 recruiting class.
He started gaining attention as a freshman at State College High School. By his junior year, he toted multiple Division I offers.
He stayed home and accepted Penn State’s offer. His speed, though, remained harnessed. He shuffled between offense and defense the past two seasons, eventually settling at wide receiver after coach Bill O’Brien’s hiring last winter.
The four-time PIAA Class AAA 100-meter dash finalist always dabbled in special teams. A knee injury this past spring slowed him, but he entered the kick return competition in training camp.
“They were experimenting with different guys and my name was called,” Kenney said. “I was fortunate. I will do anything to be on the field and show that I belong there.”
The role comes with some frustrations. The NCAA moved kickoffs up 5 yards and touchbacks to the 25 this past off-season.
Kenney has returned just one kick this season. The return against Navy went for 20 yards.
On many kickoffs, Kenney catches the ball deep in the end zone and lunges forward. A teammate then instructs him to take a knee. Kenney will enter Saturday with one special teams thought: Let the kicker send one short.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “Me and Jesse are back there eager to return kicks and a lot of the kicks go deep into the end zone. Hopefully this week we get an opportunity to return one.”
Kenney, an unassuming 21-year-old who questions few things, isn’t a big fan of the rule changes.
“We really can’t do anything about the rule change,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it has taken a big-play opportunity out of each game.”
Punt returns are a different story.
Decisions are made by players. They must be made fast. And big-play possibilities exist.
The search to find a bold player with reliable hands first led the coaching staff to linebacker Gerald Hodges. The experiment didn’t last long. Hodges fumbled a punt in a season-opening loss to Ohio University. The risks associated with Hodges returning punts didn’t outweigh the rewards.
Auditions for punt returners stretched into the week leading into last month’s game at Virginia. Before the Tuesday and Wednesday practices, Della Valle fielded dozens of punts.
His hands, vision and guts convinced secondary coach John Butler, who works with the special teams, to use Della Valle against Virginia.
“They wanted a lot of guys back there who had any experience with it,” said Della Valle, who returned a punt for a touchdown as a senior at District 7 Shaler High School. “It was a good opportunity for me. It has worked out well for me and the team.”
Della Valle averages a team-high 10.6 yards per return. Unlike Kenney, Della Valle enrolled at Penn State with no financial guarantees. He had two choices out of high school: accept a Division I-AA scholarship or attend Penn State as a preferred walk-on.
“It wasn’t the typical recruiting process,” he said. “I could pick one of two things. It was take the money or take your dreams. I decided my dreams were important. You only get one shot in life and I wanted to take it.
“At the same time, I wasn’t just some guy Penn State was just offering to be on the team. I was a recruited player. I was an all-state performer. I knew I had some potential to get some playing time up here.”
Della Valle’s persistence was rewarded when O’Brien awarded him a scholarship this past summer.
Fielding kicks and punts only represents part of Kenney and Della Valle’s job description. Kenney is Penn State’s starting slot receiver. Della Valle is a reserve cornerback.
They are key pieces as the program wades through the NCAA sanctions period.
“Jesse’s a great football player,” Kenney said. “Like all of us who redshirted or played on the scout team the last few years, you’re looking for an opportunity to play. He’s making the best of his opportunity.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.