Anthony Zettel knows how to make a splash. The All-Big Ten defensive tackle first made a name for himself with a surprise commitment to Penn State that came out of the clear blue as many recruiting analysts assumed it was a given he would end up a Michigan Wolverine or Michigan State Spartan. As a freshman in 2012, Zettel made the most of the playing time he received in mop-up duty, most notably in a dominating fourth quarter performance in Penn State’s first win of the season against Navy. He didn’t get regular playing time that season, but when he did see the field he made sure everyone knew about it. In 2013 his playing time increased as he became part of the regular rotation, and it became apparent he was on his way to some very big things as a Nittany Lion.
It wasn’t perfectly clear just how good Zettel would be as a full-time starter though. He certainly showed great potential as an underclassman, but it was unknown how we would handle the rigors of being a full-time starter in the Big Ten as an undersized defensive tackle.
In typical fashion, Zettel immediately made others take notice as one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten. In a year of resurgence for the Penn State defense that saw them once again play at a level that ranked among the best in college football, Zettel was the man in the middle who made everything possible. From the start, he was a disruptive force that demanded attention and allowed Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan the freedom to regularly apply pressure and make things easier for the entire defense. The constant pressure on the opposing quarterbacks allowed a young but athletic secondary to make plays all season and create many turnovers when one was desperately needed to spark a lethargic offense. It allowed fellow starting defensive tackle Austin Johnson to blossom into a playmaker in his own right. The exceptional play coming from the defensive tackle position also freed up the linebackers to make plays all over the field, something that Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell, and especially Mike Hull took full advantage. Consider this- if Zettel didn’t demand so much attention, how easy would it have been for offenses to neutralize Mike Hull? If not for Zettel, we may be discussing Hull as a very good linebacker, not another all-time great of Linebacker U.
Even with all the attention he was receiving from opposing offenses, Zettel still shined. Try as they may, he just could not be slowed down. He was constantly making plays in the opponents backfield as the team leader in both sacks (8.0) and tackles for loss (15.0). In a true testament to his playmaking ability, Zettel tied for the team lead in interceptions with three on the season. It usually takes a bit of luck for a defensive tackle to make an interception- for Zettel it was pure skill and tenacity that put him in position for such an unlikely feat. If not for a handful of blown calls, Zettel’s pick-six against Ohio State would have forever been remembered in Penn State lore as the catalyst to one of the biggest upsets in school history.
Simply put, Zettel was the motor for an incredible 2014 defense that is on par with any other of the other impressive units at Penn State. He will be Penn State's most celebrated player heading into 2015, but why wait? It's time to recognize Anthony Zettel as the MVP of the 2014 Penn State Nittany Lions.