How He Got Here
Anthony Zettel came to Penn State in the 2011 recruiting class that also brought in guys like Donovan Smith, Adrian Amos, and Allen Robinson. He was a four-star recruit and the No. 2 player in the class, according to 247 Sports. Zettel came to Penn State as a potential offensive guard or defensive end, and lined up at end for his first few years in Happy Valley.
At first, Zettel was a pretty good defensive end. He wasn't the kind of guy that you'd kill to have on your team, but he was good. He was namely a really nice pass rusher, as Zettel racked up 31 tackles, 10 TFL and eight sacks over his first two years in Happy Valley. That's more than perfectly fine for a defensive end who didn't play all that frequently, and it's safe to assume that if Zettel stayed at end, he would have done a great job at that spot.
Instead James Franklin decided that Penn State needed Zettel to move to defensive tackle. This isn't too surprising, as the Nittany Lions had Deion Barns and C.J. Olaniyan at end and two of the team's tackles – Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia – moved to the offensive line. Basically, Penn State really needed a body at defensive tackle, so Zettel moved inside.
And hoooooooooly shit was that the right decision. Zettel proved to be the best defensive tackle in the entire Big Ten, as he was too fast for any interior lineman to block and had the strength you'd want out of any person who plays on the inside. He was so impossibly good that he made life easier for the other three guys who lined up next to him, and still managed to get his: 42 tackles, 17 TFL, 8 sacks. Zettel even killed people when he wasn't rushing the passer, as he had three interceptions, including a pick-six. The season ended with him making a whole lotta All-Conference and All-American squads, and made all of us go "wait, he just moved to this position, what will happen once he has a year of experience under his belt?"
Which leads us to...
What to Expect in 2015
Also, I don't think it's crazy to think that Zettel's numbers get a little worse this year. This, however, is part of the reason why he's so valuable to the Nittany Lion defense. In order to take out Zettel, you need at least two linemen taking him on constantly. This will open up everything for all of the other guys on the defense. Suddenly, Austin Johnson gets to eat another human being as he's charging into the backfield. Guys like Garrett Sickels and Carl Nassib will have an easier transition to their starting roles because they're taking on guys 1-on-1 almost all the time. The ultra-aggressive back seven, which blitzes all the time, will get more free shots at quarterbacks because every lineman is taken.
And still, despite all of this, there are plenty of reasons to think that Zettel hasn't totally reached his ceiling as a defensive tackle yet. He now has a year of playing the position under his belt and can work on the finer points of being a defensive tackle that he maybe didn't get the chance to learn when he shifted last year. He's bigger, faster, and stronger, and now he gets all of the intricacies of playing that position. Plus there's always the potential that Zettel plays some defense end, which *chill goes down my spine*.
Basically, what I'm saying is, Zettel is Penn State's best player, and he is very good at hitting opposing football players.
How the Top 10 Players Were Selected
For those of you curious, the top ten players were selected by a staff vote. Each staff member ranked the top 10 players, with a number one vote counting as 10 points, a number two vote counting for nine points, and so on. And now, time to learn how the sausage was made.
We got 13 ballots, and only two players received first-place votes: Zettel got nine, Christian Hackenberg got four. Zettel appeared in the top-two of every ballot, Hackenberg was in the top-two of all but four ballots, and the only other player to make it into the top-two of anyone's ballots was Austin Johnson. Here's how the voting turned out:
1. Anthony Zettel - 126 points
2. Christian Hackenberg - 112 points
3. Austin Johnson - 100 points
4. Jordan Lucas - 83 points
5. Marcus Allen - 59 points
6. DaeSean Hamilton - 54 points
7. Nyeem Wartman-White - 53 points
t-8. Brandon Bell, Adam Breneman - 31 points
10. Akeel Lynch - 25 points
11. Chris Godwin - 16 points
12. Trevor Williams - 9 points
13. Angelo Mangiro - 5 points
14. Saeed Blacknall - 4 points
15. Mike Gesicki - 3 points
16. Geno Lewis - 2 points
t-17. Carl Nassib, DeAndre Thompkins - 1 point
The Rest of the Top Ten