Penn State: To O'Brien, they're special

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The questions change, but Bill O'Brien nearly always finds a way to provide the same answer. At some point in most news conferences, he begins the speech, an impassioned soliloquy about his favorite type of player.

The guys he loves to gush about are role players. He credits them for accepting duties that might place them out of the limelight but energize teammates.

They are, said O'Brien, players like returner Jesse Della Valle, fullback Mike Zordich and linebacker Mike Hull. Their emergence has coincided with Penn State's resurgence over the past three games.

Obviously, coaches in sports from football to volleyball to Quidditch cherish role players. But O'Brien's feelings for these guys sound personal.

There's a reason.

In the not so distant past, he played the way Zordich, Della Valle and Hull play at Brown.

Those teams were terrible; his coach at Brown, Mickey Kwiatkowski, said as much, but he always praises O'Brien.

O'Brien was, primarily, a defensive end, but he also played linebacker and on special teams. As he said Tuesday, he had no problem moving around.

"I just loved to play and, if they asked me to switch positions, I would switch at a moment's notice just to help the team, whatever I could do to help the team," he said.

O'Brien credited Maryland and Georgia Tech, two places where he coached as an assistant, as further leading him to realize the needs of role players. His time with the NFL's New England Patriots sealed his belief.

The Patriots, perhaps more than other pro teams, are famous for their mechanical, arguably cold-hearted, approach to filling their roster with obedient players, If players get too big for a role or ask for too much money, the team finds someone else.

At Penn State, players have said that O'Brien's staff openly communicated their roles to them in January and have continued to do so in ensuing months.

The openness has led players to trust the system, a vital ingredient for maximizing guys like Hull and Zordich.

Both players came to Penn State with a considerable amount of recruiting hype, and both have played well enough this season to deserve starring roles.

Hull, a Canon McMillan High School graduate, said he looks forward to starting next year. For now, he has accepted his job in the defense.

On third downs, he generally replaces starting linebacker Glenn Carson because he is adept at pass coverage. In the past three games, Penn State has gone from allowing teams to convert 61 percent of the time on third down to 26 percent.

Zordich went from a blocker to one of the team's main rushers in victories against Navy and Temple. Now that Bill Belton is back and Zach Zwinak seemingly has stepped forward as the team's go-to physical runner, Zordich could return to primarily blocking again as he did against Illinois.

"You have to learn to accept your role," he said after the Navy game.

Della Valle has arrived in the same place as Zordich and Hull by different means and with a much different pedigree. The Shaler Area graduate was a walk-on who did not earn a scholarship until August.

From his days playing for St. Bonaventure in the Catholic Diocese League, his coaches led him to seeking out "hard-nosed" roles, as Della Valle calls them. As a punt-returner, he has been able to do that and is averaging 10.6 yards per return.

O'Brien placed linebacker Michael Yancich, linebacker Ben Kline and wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder in the same category as Della Valle. When they get their shot, even if the opportunity is limited, he trusts they will make the most of it.

"That's all it's about is helping the team win, being in that locker room after a win, that's what it's about," O'Brien said. "So, I think these guys are starting to understand that and, hopefully, we can continue to get them to understand that."


• Game: Penn State vs. Northwestern.

• When: Noon Saturday.

• Where: Beaver Stadium.



Mark Dent: and Twitter @mdent05. First Published October 5, 2012 4:00 AM


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