Key Departure: Tyrone Smith
Smith was a serviceable member of the defensive tackle rotation he collected six tackles, a tackle for loss and 0.5 sacks during his senior season.
Likely Starters: Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson
With so much youth and potential sprinkled throughout the Penn State roster, it seems almost every position is up for grabs this spring. However, you can bet your last dollar Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson are firmly etched into the starting lineup. The duo may be the top two defensive tackles in the Big Ten, and should form the best defensive tackle pair in all of college football. If you need a reason to be excited for the upcoming season, just think about Zettel and Johnson dominating in the trenches throughout the 2015 season.
Zettel burst onto the scene in his first year as a starter, leading the team with sacks (8.0), negative tackles (17.5), and somehow, interceptions (3). He was an all-conference performer as a junior and should enter the season as a leading candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He is somewhat undersized at 6'4'' and 278 lbs. but has tremendous technique and off-the-charts athleticism that make him nearly impossible to block for even the Big Ten's best offensive linemen. With Mike Hull preparing to play on Sunday's, Zettel is now unquestionably Penn State's biggest playmaker on defense.
As amazing as Zettel performed in 2014, Johnson was not far behind. Johnson not only eats up space with his 6'4", 325 lb. frame he also can easily find his way into the backfield. He was the team's fifth-leading tackler during his redshirt sophomore season with 49, while also contributing 6 tackles for loss and a sack. He consistently improved each week throughout the season and seems primed for a monster season in 2015. Between these two incredibly versatile and disruptive tackles, I feel sorry for any offense that faces off against Penn State with a weak interior. Actually, I don't.
Primary Backups: Parker Cothren, Tarow Barney, Antoine White
Most schools would be thrilled with the combination of Cothren and Barney as its starting defensive tackles, which goes to show the incredible depth at the position in Happy Valley. Both players cut their teeth as part of Penn State's second-unit defensive line in 2014. While neither demonstrated the playmaking abilities of Johnson and Zettel, they both proved more than capable of shutting down the opposing run game. Barney will be among the lone seniors of the Penn State defense as he enters his second and final year of eligibility as a Nittany Lion after transferring as a four-star JUCO prospect. As a junior, he finished with seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks to go along with a forced fumble.
Cothren received plenty of experience as a redshirt freshmen, which, along with another offseason in the strength and conditioning program, will benefit him greatly moving forward. The three star prospect and Alabama native is yet another exceptional athlete along the defensive line- Cothren runs a 4.9 40-yard dash despite weighing in at just under 300 lbs. As a reserve, he finished the 2014 season with 11 tackles, 2.5 negative hits and 0.5 sacks. Cothren should be more than ready to take on the difficult task of replacing Zettel's superhuman presence in 2016.
Many expected White to contribute as a true freshman. However, the coaching staff wisely had him use a redshirt season to spend in the weight room where he packed on 20-plus pounds to his current playing weight of 289 lbs. Now, they should reap the benefits as he enters his first season of eligibility. White entered Penn State as a three-star prospect with an extensive offer list. He has an excellent burst for someone with his size and should develop into a versatile defensive tackle in the mold of Johnson and Devon Still.