STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Derek Day's mercurial rise up the Penn State tailback depth chart may take a turn this week worthy of a feel-good movie script.
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.
Sophomore Allen Robinson is off to a nice start as the featured receiver after senior Justin Brown transferred to Oklahoma.
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.
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