In 2014, Anthony Zettel had the type of season that can only be matched by a handful of players on the long list of exceptional defenders to play at Penn State. During his junior season and his first-year as a starter, Zettel led the squad in sacks, tackles for loss, quarterback hurries, and somehow, interceptions from the defensive tackle position. Armed with incredible strength and a non-stop motor, Zettel was simply relentless. Whether making plays in the opponent's backfield, sideline-to-sideline or even downfield, he was everywhere. Zettel was an unstoppable force who would come back bigger, stronger and somehow, even better for his senior season.
So what happened for Zettel to drop from number one in our preseason player rankings to the sixth spot following the end of the year? Something that happens to all elite defensive linemen- he made every offensive coordinator on the schedule take notice. After a remarkable highlight-reel season leading one of the top defenses in college football, it became perfectly clear that to move the ball against Penn State you must do one thing first and foremost- slow down big ol' number 98. If you didn't find a way to neutralize Zettel, there was a good chance he would disrupt just about any play that he was on the field for- oftentimes, before it could even get started.
While Zettel's numbers declined to the point where he fell out of the All-American conversation, he still managed to have an incredible season, finishing with 11 tackles for loss, four sacks, six pass deflections and 47 total tackles. Not too shabby for someone forced to constantly battling through double and triple-team efforts. While the extra attention slowed down Zettel, it made Penn State's defense much better across the board. Without Zettel's presence, Carl Nassib likely doesn't have the surprise record-breaking, award-winning senior season that no one saw coming. Austin Johnson probably doesn't put up the numbers that could lead to him hearing his name called in the first round of the NFL draft in May. He also freed up Jason Cabinda to learn on the fly and quickly become a playmaker in his first season as a starter at middle linebacker. Without Zettel requiring so much attention in the middle, Brandon Bell doesn't have the success he did coming off the edge- something that became a major asset as he created big play after big play that changed the course of several games in 2015.
Zettel also had to face a personal tragedy that no college student should ever have to confront- the early death of his father after a long bout with cancer. We as fans are all too often guilty of expecting student-athletes to compete at a high-level each week, while simply dismissing all of the other roles, responsibilities and luxuries that come with being a typical college student. It's impossible for most of us to even imagine being in Zettel's situation at the age of 23- trying to focus on weightlifting and film sessions while knowing the most influential person in your life only had days or weeks to live. During an unimaginable difficult time, football likely dropped down in the list of priorities, as it should int he grand scheme of things.
We have seen the last of Zettel in a Penn State uniform, but we should be able to watch him continue to wreak havoc on Sundays for years to come. Give 'em hell, Anthony.
Number 9 - Jordan Lucas
Number 8 - Jason Cabinda