Penn State's Derek Day: From walk-on to starter

Derek Day, a senior filling in for Bill Belton of South Jersey, had eight carries for 36 yards against Ohio.
Derek Day, a senior filling in for Bill Belton of South Jersey, had eight carries for 36 yards against Ohio. (MARK SELDERS / Penn State)
Posted: September 08, 2012

Penn State's Derek Day went from a seldom-used walk-on to special-teams ace to someone who climbed to No. 2 on the depth chart at tailback after a good preseason coupled with Silas Redd's transfer to Southern California.

Now the fifth-year senior will make his first career start Saturday at Virginia, coach Bill O'Brien said Thursday night, because of a left ankle injury suffered last week by Bill Belton.

O'Brien said of Winslow Township's Belton, who has been day-to-day: "I'm not sure if Billy will be able to go on Saturday."

"I definitely will make sure that I'm ready to go," Day said earlier this week. "We're playing football and it's unfortunate when a guy goes down or a guy gets hurt. I'm not sure if Billy is going to be able to go. So you just have to prepare yourself and be ready to go in any situation, and that's what I'm trying to prepare myself to do."

The 5-foot-9, 193-pound Day, who was awarded a scholarship before the start of the 2011 season, exceeded his career rushing totals after just one week. He carried eight times for 36 yards against Ohio with a long gain of 14 yards. He also was named a game captain for the special-teams units.

It's quite a change from last season, when Day typically was the last back to enter a lopsided game. He figured to rise to No. 3 on the depth chart this season before Redd left the program the week after the NCAA levied harsh sanctions against the football program in reaction to the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.

Day said he wanted to show a new coaching staff that he was willing to do anything to help the Nittany Lions. But he had no expectations.

"I worked as hard as I could to put myself in the best position to help this team win ball games," he said, "whether it was going to be maybe special teams or as one of the running backs. I've been given that opportunity now, so I feel that I'm ready for it and I'm going to run with it."

New head coach Bill O'Brien has said he appreciates Day's toughness, and an example of that was in evidence in the first quarter, when Day took a helmet-to-helmet hit and saw his helmet fall to the turf.

"As soon as my helmet flew off, I knew I wasn't down yet so I knew something would come, from which direction I had no clue," he said.

The next Ohio tackler smashed his helmet into the side of Day's head, opening a cut that left his face and gloves bloodied. He was not seriously injured and returned to the game after sitting out Penn State's next possession.

Day's journey brings a smile to the face of Matt McGloin. The Nittany Lions quarterback entered Penn State in 2008, the same year as Day, as a walk-on.

"You can put your complete trust in him," McGloin said. "You know he's going to do his assignment well, he's going to block right, he's going to run the ball the right way. He knows what he's doing out there on the football field. He's a strong, tough kid."

Day almost didn't make it to Penn State. He was being looked at by a number of Football Championship Subdivision schools, including Delaware, before he suffered a broken leg in the 2007 PIAA district playoffs playing for Central Dauphin.

Those seeking Day's services backed off. But Day had a previous offer to be a preferred walk-on at Penn State, and when X-rays showed the leg to be healing properly, the Nittany Lions invited him again, and he accepted.

"I wanted to play college football, but when something like that happens, you don't know if you're going to be able to," he said. "Honestly, I see it as a blessing in disguise because I don't know if I'd be at Penn State if that didn't happen."

Contact Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or or follow him on Twitter @joejulesinq

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