Derek Day felt the snap. He knew something --- ligaments, tendons, bones -- broke inside of him as if it were made of plastic.
The senior at Central Dauphin High School thought his career might be over. The tailback tried to carry a pile of blue-helmeted defenders an extra yard or two before someone hammered his ankle. He couldn't return to the huddle, couldn't even stand, with a broken tibia and fibula.
"Honestly, I see that as a blessing in disguise," Day said Wednesday, looking back on that injury in Nov. 2007. "I don't know if I'd be at Penn State if that didn't happen."
When FCS schools, such as Delaware and New Hampshire, began rescinding their offers, Day searched for other options. When Penn State contacted him about a preferred walk-on spot, he didn't have to sit down with his parents to know this was his best opportunity.
He accepted the PSU offer once assistant coach Larry Johnson finished his sentence.
"When I got here, I just wanted to work as hard as I could and develop into as good a football player as I can," Day said. "And now I have the opportunity to help my team win games."
If Bill Belton cannot recover from a sprained ankle, Day will earn his first career start Saturday. Belton remains day-to-day, and Bill O'Brien said he might not know until Friday whether Belton would step into that first huddle.
Day said he's ready. A fifth-year starter, he began his career at the bottom rung in Happy Valley and said he never thought he'd make it this far. His teammates praised his work ethic this week for just making it to the No. 2.
He began his career with the scout team, then special teams -- then came a scholarship before his redshirt junior season -- and then he fought to become the No. 3 tailback. Now, with Silas Redd's departure and Belton's injury, he could be No. 1.
"Derek Day isn't exactly a sleeper," fullback Michael Zordich said. "He showed a lot on Saturday. He can run the ball very well and understands his routes and protections. And he's worked very hard to get to this spot."
Day hasn't seen the field often in his first four years at Penn State -- and he doesn't like to leave it. When his helmet popped off in the first quarter against Ohio, a defender smacked him, helmet-first, into his unprotected head.
He brushed the top of his head with a glove and saw a "good bit of blood." A few of his linemen pointed out the injury, and he returned to the sideline. "Ohio doesn't hit hard!" he yelled to his team as blood continued to gush out of the cut.
He wasn't out long. He returned to finish the game with 36 yards -- nine more than his career total -- and boasted a team-high 4.5-yard average.
The 5-foot-9, 193-pound tailback could see his carries double against Virginia. O'Brien acknowledged he needs to call more run plays, and Day could be asked to make up that balance.
"He's one of the hardest workers on the team and, as an offensive lineman, you appreciate having someone run as hard as he does," offensive tackle Mike Farrell said Wednesday. "We think he can have a great season for us."