Sometimes a bad break is a blessing in disguise. At least that's the way Derek Day sees it.
Day picked up 36 yards on eight carries last week against Ohio.
The Penn State running back was a senior at Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, Pa., and was getting offers from Delaware, New Hampshire and other Division I-AA (FCS) schools. During a district playoff game his senior season, though, Day broke his left leg in two places, an injury that would put his plans to play college football in serious doubt.
The schools that had extended scholarship offers backed off a bit, instead offering Day the chance to join them as a preferred walk-on. Penn State, the school he had always watched while growing up, gave him the same offer. So, Day figured, if he was going to walk on, why not do so at the highest level?
Four years later, Day is no longer a walk-on (nor a run-on). He's a scholarship player and, unless Bill Belton recovers from the ankle injury that's sidelined him for much of the week, is set to make his first career start Saturday at Virginia.
Day redshirted in 2008 and spent the bulk of the next three seasons contributing on special teams. He got some time as a deep reserve at tailback last season, finishing with seven carries for 27 yards and adding 13 more yards on a reception. He spent the spring backing up Silas Redd and Belton, but when Redd transferred to USC, moved into the No. 2 slot. And when Belton turned his ankle in the fourth quarter in Saturday's opener against Ohio, Day -- who had already carried the ball five times -- was the man Bill O'Brien turned to.
"Whether Bill got hurt or not, I definitely want to make sure I'm going to be ready to go," Day said. "We're playing football and it's unfortunate when a guy goes down. You just have to prepare yourself and be ready to go in any situation, and that's what I tried to do."
Day dealt with an injury of his own on Saturday on what was a scary play. His helmet got knocked off his head during an early carry and he took a shot to the head quickly afterward, opening a cut that required stitches. Day had to come off the field by rule but said at no point did he feel disoriented. On his way to the sideline, he fired up -- and cracked up -- his teammates with a one-liner that no one wanted to repeat to reporters.
"I was just trying to get the guys going," Day said, laughing. "I just came off the field saying that those guys don't hit very hard. Just wanted to get the guys a little bit fired up."
The Penn State veterans who watched Day put in the long hours at practice and wait his turn during the last few years have been pleased to see him run with it. His 4.5 yards-per-carry average led all Nittany Lion backs against Ohio.
"He's one of the hardest workers on the team and as an offensive lineman, you appreciate someone who runs as hard as he does behind you," right tackle Mike Farrell said. "He's a complete back. He runs the ball where it's designed to go on every play."
"He has always given his best effort on every play," linebacker Michael Mauti said. "I'm really excited to watch him play and get that opportunity right now. I know he's going to make the most of it."
Day is no longer a walk-on -- he was put on scholarship at the start of the 2011 season -- but understands how important such players (which O'Brien now refers to as "run-ons") will be to Penn State during the sanction years. Asked this week if his ascendence to starter could provide inspiration for future walk-ons, Day sounded flattered.
"I haven't really thought about it but hopefully they can use me as an example and my message to them is just work as hard as you can, give it everything that you have every day and you'll be rewarded," he said. "We have a decent amount of walk-ons right now. There's guys that I'd be honored if they'd look at me as a guy to look up to."