What a group of seniors. No senior class at Penn State has ever had to persevere through as many off field challenges as this bunch. Forget about the 'Penn State' qualifier - that might stand true for any college football team.
Film Room chose a favorite play from each of these seniors, and shared them below. Let's take one quick look back before they walk through the tunnel one last time.
(This is part one, with six seniors highlighted. Part two, featuring the remaining five, will post tomorrow.)
#4 Adrian Amos and #23 Ryan Keiser
Here is a pair that, if not for football, probably never meet.
Amos was a highly sought after recruit from Baltimore, MD. He started for Joe Paterno as a true freshman at cornerback. He accrued 25 starts on defense before he began his 4th and final year at Penn State, with his versatility allowing him to play field corner, boundary corner, nickle corner, free and strong safety, and on occassion, linebacker in nickle and short yardage. Adrian will graduate in December.
Keiser was a walk-on from rural Selinsgrove, PA. He redshirted his first year. In his 2nd and 3rd years, he held for field goals and extra points, and tallied 11 tackles on kickoff. Not until midway through his redshirt junior season was he able to crack the starting lineup, at safety. Ryan graduated this past spring.
But when they played together, they made a great pair. The play that sticks out to Film Room is from November 2013. Penn State has gone to overtime with Illinois. Our Lions scored a touchdown in the first segment to take a lead, and the Illini offense, led by senior QB Nathan Sheelhaasse, must equalize.
In the shot below, Amos lines up as boundary corner, and Keiser is opposite, as field safety. Illinois shows run strength to Amos' side, but is going to execute a very sneaky pass. The Illini expect quarters coverage from Penn State, and that's what they get. They plan to run their two strong side receivers to the deep middle to occupy the safety, while sneaking their lone wideout (at the bottom of the screen) across the field and behind Amos, who, they hope, will not see the wideout cutting behind him.
It doesn't work. Amos recognized the route combination, as did Ryan Keiser, who followed the receiver across the formation to prevent possible disaster. Instead of a wide open receiver, Sheelhaase is throwing into double coverage.
Amos turns his head, leaps, and out-fights the Illini receiver for the football. He tips it away, and the trailing Keiser is there to collect the interception. Game over. Penn State wins.
#31 Brad Bars
Bars was an unheralded recruit from Tennessee, coming to State College as a 6'3", 200-lb defensive end. Injuries hampered his redshirt sophomore season, and stole all of his redshirt junior time. But as a 5th year, 260-lb, graduated senior, Bars fought back from an Achilles injury to make the rotation at defensive end.
Facing Michigan at the Big House this year, the Wolverines line up with a first down near midfield, and Penn State clinging to a 3-point lead. Brad Bars is directly in the line of fire. He'll purposely be left unblocked by the Wolverines in front of him. Michigan's aim is for Bars to rush wildly upfield so that they can execute an inverted veer underneath him. And if he doesn't rush wildly upfield, the Wolverines are pulling a guard from the backside to wham him in a trap.
Brad might not have a ton of snaps on the field, but he's no dummy. He immediately senses that some wickedness is afoot, and halts his upfield progress. With his eyes on the QB, he reads the play and lowers his level to crush the trapping guard and pinch this play closed.
But this is 2014 Michigan, and nothing goes right for Brady Hoke. The trapping guard ignores Bars, and Bars doesn't hesitate. He launches himself at the Wolverine mesh point, grabbing RB DeVeon Smith with one arm, and QB Gardner with the other.
Gardner tries to keep the football, so Bars tosses the RB aside, and leaps onto Gardner like a Serengeti lion jumping an antelope. Down goes Gardner, and Bars gets a coveted Tackle For Loss.
#88 Tyrone Smith
Some men walk away from tough circumstances. Tyrone Smith walked towards them. The All-City (Pittsburgh) defender made the Penn State squad during open tryouts in Spring of 2012, when Penn State football had reached its nadir, and confusion, sadness, and anger were at their peaks.
Standing 6'5" but weighing just 240 lbs, Smith worked tirelessly during the 2012 season, without complaint, to help the school he loved. By 2013, he put on 15 lbs and earned a scholarship from Bill O'Brien. Though he saw some time at defensive tackle, he was still lean enough that he covered kicks. And wow, did he cover them. If Film Room could find it, we'd have shown Smith absolutely smearing an Eastern Michigan player in the 2013 home opener. But we couldn't.
That might be for the best, anyhow, because Smith didn't stop at earning a scholarship, and he wasn't satisfied with kick coverage, which should have been plenty good enough for any walk on. He kept working all off season. Now, as a 275-lb defensive tackle, he's an invaluable member of a top 5 defense. Here's a video of Smith in action from 2014. He gets under a Maryland guard, puts the guard on roller skates, drives the guard 7 yards deep, and sacks the quarterback.
Wow. A whole lot of work went into that play.
#39 Jesse Della Valle
Here's another tireless worker. Della Valle was a preferred walk on from Shaler Area, as part of the 2010 recruiting class. He redshirted in 2010, and made his debut in the 2011 season opener on special teams. By 2012, Jesse became a regular part of the defensive backfield rotation, earning snaps and a few starts at safety.
Whether he won a starting defensive backfield spot outright, or not, Della Valle never quit working to help his team. As a 5th year senior, Jesse's a clear leader on special teams, tallying a ton of tackles on kickoff, and returning a few punts. And when he rotates in at safety, he shows the ability to make plays like this one, in gif form below.
He's also a 2x All Big Ten academic honoree. Who wouldn't take 20 Della Valles on their squad?
#1 Bill Belton
Has anyone had a more mentally taxing road to travel than Bill Belton? A New Jersey prep star quarterback, Belton was a late addition to Penn State's 2011 recruiting class, after his initial verbal school fired its coach. Once he made it to Dear Old State in the summer of '11, he lined up at wide receiver and had his expected redshirt pulled early.
Though he didn't get a ton of snaps, he flashed top end speed and world class change of direction when he saw the field, and worked his way into the rotation as the 3rd/4th receiver, ahead of classmate Allen Robinson. One week after the world turned upside down, Belton traveled to Ohio Stadium, and made the Penn State fanbase explode with joy as he took a 'wildcat' direct snap, broke a few Buckeye ankles, and sprinted upfield in a Penn State victory.
When Bill O'Brien arrived, he moved Belton to running back, and shuffled him behind presumed starter Silas Redd. And when the NCAA declared free agency a few weeks before the 2012 season began, with Redd choosing USC, Belton could have gone anywhere in the country. He'd been asked to change positions to something he'd never played. He'd have to fight to earn snaps - no playing time was guaranteed. He was young, talented, and gifted, with a set of coaches he barely knew, who weren't enthusiastic about his classroom study habits.
But he stayed. And he worked. And he'll graduate this December.
While everyone will remember Belton bouncing a goalline run to the outside, and scoring the game winner against Michigan in 2013, it was Belton's 4th down run a few snaps before that which Film Room remembers most. Four overtimes, and the game was still undecided. Over 107,000 people in Beaver Stadium had gone past the point of nervous exhaustion, along with another few million watching at home. With the game on the line, Bill O'Brien turned to his junior running back.
One yard. Get it, and you live. Lose it, and you die.
Even worse, Michigan sells out against the run, and stuffs Penn State's offensive line, knocking them a yard off the ball in the wrong direction. Belton, the quarterback turned receiver turned running back, stays patient, and trusts his fullback.
Zerbe finds what might be a crease, but trips and falls. Belton sees the narrowest of gaps, and explodes forward into a mass of humanity. You can't see him in the shot below - that's what the yellow arrow is for. But he's been hit twice already, and is getting wrapped up by two more Wolverine defenders bent on driving him backwards.
And then, boom. Somehow, someway, inexplicably, the smallest man on the field powered through everyone else, and came out the other side for a first down. The play was blocked for zero yards. Belton's will took it four. And 5 million Penn State players, coaches, and fans were still alive because of it.