Former walk-ons make good
Five such players who helped Penn State go 8-4 last season:
Derek Day, RB: Rushed for 111 yards and started one game after emerging from preseason practices as the No. 2 tailback. Day also excelled on special teams, logging nine tackles.
*Jesse Della Valle, CB/RS: The Shaler graduate averaged 7.6 yards per punt return, second in the Big Ten, turning an early-season weakness into a strength. Della Valle also added depth in the secondary.
Jacob Fagnano, S: Overcame a nagging groin injury to become part of a three-man rotation at the two safety spots. Fagnano finished with 38 tackles and an interception, and he tied for second with five pass breakups.
*Matt Lehman, TE: Lehman, one of the ultimate walk-on success stories, caught 24 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns. He made the team as a walk-on in 2011 following an open tryout and helped make tight end one of Penn State's deepest positions last season.
Matt McGloin, QB: McGloin led the Big Ten in passing (272.2 ypg) while setting numerous school records, including career touchdown passes (45). He won the Burlsworth Trophy, given to the top player in the country who started his career as a walk-on.
* Returning in 2013
Penn State is not expected to sign any WPIAL players Feb. 6, when recruits are allowed to make binding commitments.
That doesn’t mean the 2013 class will be devoid of players from an area that historically has been vital to he program’s success.
The Nittany Lions are recruiting a handful of WPIAL players as “run-ons” — coach Bill O’Brien’s term for walk-ons — including Franklin Regional linebacker Carter Henderson, North Allegheny receiver Gregg Garrity and tight end Kevin Edwards, Pine-Richland running back Brock Baranowski and Blackhawk running back Cole Chiappialle.
Penn State could supplement its recruiting class with as many as 20 priority nonscholarship players. Those players would be counted upon to provide depth when Penn State feels the bite of NCAA sanctions levied last July.
“We think we’re going to add a good number of quality football players who are going to help us win football games,” Penn State assistant recruiting coordinator Bill Kavanaugh said.
Penn State has a history of doing that with players who were overlooked by major-college programs.
The Nittany Lions’ all-time leaders in touchdown passes, receptions and interceptions — Matt McGloin, Deon Butler and Neal Smith — initially attended Penn State without a scholarship.
Garrity’s father, also named Gregg, may be the patron saint of Penn State walk-ons: His diving touchdown catch in the 1983 Sugar Bowl delivered former coach Joe Paterno’s first national championship.
Garrity also played in the NFL for seven seasons, including two with the Steelers.
There is more of an opportunity than ever for walk-ons at Penn State because the school is not allowed to offer more than 15 scholarships a year — the NCAA maximum is 25 — for the next four years.
Penn State is hoping 15 to 20 players join the 2013 team as invited walk-ons, and O’Brien and his assistants have scoured the state for hidden gems.
There are several challenges to convincing these kinds of players to go to Penn State, even ones who grew up as Nittany Lions fans.
Contact with them is limited, per NCAA rules, and schools can talk only to their coaches. There also is the reality that if Penn State likes a player as an invited walk-on, it is almost a given that he has several lower-level schools offering a full scholarship or to pay the bulk of his college expenses.
“I think we’ve done a decent enough job of letting people know, ‘Hey, we’re looking for that quality student-athlete,’ ” Kavanaugh said. “Maybe the guy’s an inch too short. He’s a linebacker that may be 5-11 where places aren’t going to scholarship him because they don’t think 5-11 guys can make it. We’re going to take those hard-nosed football players.”
Henderson falls into both categories.
He set a school record with 145 tackles last season, and Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said Henderson is one of the “most instinctive” players he has coached.
But Henderson is also a shade under 6 feet tall — he said he is 5-11 1⁄2 — which is why no Division I school has offered him a scholarship. Division II powers California (Pa.) and IUP have offered close to full scholarships, but Henderson said he is leaning toward attending Penn State.
“I just think this is my best opportunity,” said Henderson, who made an unofficial visit to Penn State last Sunday.
Garrity and Edwards, who were also at Penn State last Sunday, are in a similar situation.
Garrity’s size (5-10, 143 pounds) has caused Division I schools to shy away from him.
Never mind his pedigree: He is the only receiver to have a 1,000-yard season in North Allegheny history, and he is a polished route runner.
The 6-2, 217-pound Edwards also has been overlooked because he does not have ideal size for a tight end.
Never mind that the Tigers, who won the Quad-A state title last season, often ran behind Edwards and that he has room to grow and also can play linebacker.
“He doesn’t consider his block successful unless his guy’s on the ground,” North Allegheny coach Art Walker said of Edwards. “My two guys are hard workers that are students of the game and love the game. From talking to Coach O’Brien, this is the kind of guys he wants.”
Indeed, Garrity and Edwards may not fit the prototypes that Division I schools are looking for when extending scholarship offers. Each, however, is the prototypical player for Penn State as it tries to add depth to its program.
“We’re not (thinking), ‘Hey, this kid’s good. We can practice against him,’ ” Kavanaugh said. “We think kids that we’re taking have a chance to contribute down the road, some possibly on special teams earlier. Some will take some development, but we’ve got some good prospects.”
Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at ScottBrown_Trib.