Defensive tackle is Penn State’s strongest position heading into 2015, and it is not even close. The Nittany Lions will boast a preseason All-American, as well as another defensive tackle who could hear his name called in the first round of the 2016 or 2017 NFL draft.
Anthony Zettel came was a surprise commitment with a high ceiling, who many recruiting analysts considered a lock to stay close to home and attend Michigan or Michigan State. And ever since entering his first game, Zettel has been a nonstop playmaker for the Nittany Lions.
Zettel made the most of his time as a rotational player in 2012 and 2013, constantly finding his way to the ball whenever he stepped foot on the field. In his first season as a full-time starter in 2014, Zettel made his name known on a national level by consistently making plays that defied all logic.
Blessed with a lightning-quick first step, Zettel is able to create so much havoc that teams oftentimes need to gameplan around him for any hope of moving the ball. He has the ability to get to the quarterback in the blink of an eye or locate the running back for a massive loss before they even get a chance to look for a hole. He also has the agility to make plays across the field and regularly catches up with a ballcarrier from behind when they think they have the lane to cruise towards first down yardage. If that isn’t enough, Zettel somehow managed to tie for the team lead in interceptions in 2014, including the game-breaking pick-six against Ohio State that almost keyed a stunning comeback and upset victory against the eventual national champions.
Simply put, Zettel’s presence elevates the defense in a way few individual players can. His constant disruptions make everyone around him better and oftentimes force the offense to make poor decisions. Penn State’s defense has a chance of making a huge play every down Zettel is on the field.
As incredible as Zettel is, his counterpart in the middle may have an even higher ceiling in the NFL. Austin Johnson is a massive space-eating defensive lineman who does so much more than take up real estate in the middle. He keeps opposing linemen at bay, allowing the speedy guys behind him to make plays. For starters, If not for Johnson there is no way Hull reaches the eye-popping 140 tackle total in 2014.
Johnson is also a playmaker in his own right. While he may not pull off a pick-six like Zettel any time soon, he regularly makes his way into the backfield to shutdown a play for a loss before it even begins. Johnson improved before our very eyes each week in 2014, and by season’s end was a dominant factor. He should be a full-blown force entering the 2015 season who makes life hell for the interior linemen across from him who are supposed to find a way to slow him down or drive him out of the way.
As great as Zettel and Johnson played in 2014 to anchor one of the nation’s best defenses, amazingly enough there was little-to-no dropoff in performance when the second-team defensive line stepped in to give them a breather. That is the handy work of Parker Cothren and Tarow Barney. Cothren, entering his redshirt sophomore, will continually become better as he spends more and more time in the weight room and gaining experience. Like Zettel, he has excellent quickness for his size and should slide into his spot once Zettel is playing on Sundays in 2016. Barney, a JUCO transfer should also improve on an impressive season with a full season of big-time college football under his belt. That’s not to mention redshirt freshman Antoine White, a highly-recruited tackle who has received high praise from the staff during his redshirt season. He will find his way on the field early and often in 2015 and could quickly make a name for himself.
The bottom line is that if you enjoy watching the big uglies battle it out in the middle, there’s no better team to watch than Penn State in 2015. The Nittany Lions are loaded at defensive tackle and will be a game-changing force for Penn State all season.