Ready replacements step up after PSU departures
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP)
The one-time walk-on might be the Nittany Lions' starting running back come Saturday against Virginia (1-0) if starter Bill Belton can't go because of a left ankle injury. The senior is one of a number of players across the offense who have seized opportunities following offseason transfers and other departures from Happy Valley.
''Whether Bill got hurt or not, I am just definitely going to be ready to go,'' Day said Wednesday. ''When a guy goes down or gets hurt, you just have to prepare yourself (to step up).''
That has happened a lot at Penn State since the NCAA's landmark sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. There are no bowl games or Big Ten titles for the next four years to chase. There are significant scholarship cuts. There are obstacles aplenty.
Nine players transferred after the NCAA announced penalties July 23, taking advantage of an exception to play right away for another school. More than 90 percent of the roster, though, counting walk-ons, stayed.
And many have been rewarded already for their decisions.
Belton, another sophomore, impressed new coach Bill O'Brien so much in training camp that the converted wideout and former prep quarterback won the tailback job following Silas Redd's transfer to Southern California.
Belton is day-to-day, and O'Brien said this week he may not know until Thursday whether he'll be ready when Penn State (0-1) visits the Cavaliers.
Day, another super sub, may get the call. The senior ran with the first team in a 30-minute portion of practice open to media Wednesday, while Belton wasn't spotted in uniform.
A Pennsylvania native, Day was finally put on scholarship before the 2011 season after impressing teammates with his hard work and dedication. He may just be the perfect example of the type of player Penn State will need to rely on more in coming seasons following NCAA scholarship restrictions: A relentless replacement, ready to go.
Coming out of Central Dauphin High in Harrisburg, Day said he had interest in FCS schools like Delaware and New Hampshire but always had his eye on Penn State. Interest from other schools waned after he broke his leg in the playoffs as a senior. Two months later, Penn State offered him a ''preferred'' walk-on spot.
''Growing up a Pennsylvania kid, and having an opportunity like that,'' Day said, ''I don't have any regrets coming here.''
Day finished with eight carries on 36 yards in last week's 24-14 season-opening loss to Ohio. Another former walk-on and Pennsylvania native, tight end Matt Lehman caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt McGloin - another former walk-on.
Sensing a trend here?
McGloin went on scholarship under former coach Joe Paterno, long before O'Brien took over in January. But how walk-ons - or as O'Brien calls them, ''run-ons'' - are used will gain more attention as the scholarship reductions kick in over the next few years.
''These guys don't walk, they run on the field, they sprint on the field,'' O'Brien said in explaining his catch-phrase. ''I know that goes against everybody's term for non-scholarship players for the last 100 years of college football, but that's just our term for them.''
The larger selling points from O'Brien are the expanded opportunities that walk-ons can play in the future, similar to Day and Lehman in Week 1.
''They're guys that have improved so much in their time here at Penn State, and especially in the state of Pennsylvania, high school players in the state of Pennsylvania can really look at that and say, `Here's a place that I've grown up loving, and I've always wanted to play at, and here's my opportunity to go play at and potentially earn a scholarship in my time there,''' O'Brien said.
''I think there's no doubt that hopefully that resonates with kids in Pennsylvania especially.''
McGloin, for his part, disdains the term ''walk-on.''
''You do the same exact thing that everyone with a scholarship does,'' McGloin said. ''Unfortunately, they just don't pay for you to go to school.''
The McGloin-led offense featured a new tailback (Belton) and a new set of top receivers in Robinson and Shawney Kersey against the Bobcats. Besides Brown's departure, senior and projected starting receiver Devon Smith left earlier in the offseason because of off-field issues and has since transferred to Marshall.
Against Ohio, Robinson finished with 97 yards on nine catches - three times as many receptions as he had all of 2011. Kersey against Ohio had 35 yards on five catches, matching his total for all of last season.
And just to complicate things a little more, the Ohio game was also the first time out for Penn State's revamped offense since O'Brien installed a new playbook modeled after the one he ran as New England Patriots offensive coordinator. That new playbook could eventually yield more opportunities for tight ends.
For now, though, the offense simply needs more opportunities, period. After all, starting down an ACC opponent on the road this week, this unit is coming off a game in which it was blanked in the final two quarters, after leading Ohio 14-3 at halftime.
But that doesn't mean you'll hear any excuses, from O'Brien on down.
''The more we play, the more we'll get better and finish drives,'' McGloin said. ''We're going to keep progressing as an offense ... and we're going to be tough to beat in the future.''
NOTES: Starting cornerback Stephon Morris, who hurt his right ankle last week, took part in practice Wednesday and looked fine. ... Penn State hasn't played an ACC team since defeating Florida State in the 2006 Orange Bowl.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP