Penn State had an outstanding starting defensive line in 2014 that helped lead one of the best, perhaps THE best, defense in college football when you consider how few favors they received from a turnover-prone offense that couldn't stay on the field. With the likes of Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson, Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan on the field, not only could they get pressure with a four-man front, but they built a brick wall that absolutely quashed any hopes to run the ball, ending the season with the top run defense in the nation.
But based on the amount of time the unit was forced to stay on the field, the coaching staff needed to heavily rely on a scrappy second unit to hold down the fort while the star-laden starting unit took a much-needed breather. At first it was a terrifying prospect- just how is a group of extremely young, inexperienced and underdeveloped players expected to hold their own against a Big Ten offensive line? It seemed almost a certainty that the gig was up for Penn State's dominant defense- the second unit would be exposed, allowing opponents to drive the ball down their throats and put up points that the Nittany Lions moribund offense just couldn't match.
But that never happened. Led by Parker Cothren in the middle, the next generation of Penn State defensive linemen removed doubts that they could be depended on and maintain the high standards set by the starting unit.
Now, it's time for Cothren to take on a much bigger role, and he should be more than ready to step into the spotlight. During his redshirt freshman and sophomore campaigns, Cothren quietly showed up with his lunch pail and got the job done. While we may not have given Cothren his due during the past two seasons, he has been an extremely valuable contributor on a top-notch defense. He is a smart and coachable player who has continued to improve, and will make it difficult to ignore as an upperclassman as he steps out of the large shadows of Zettel and Johnson.
Cothren carries his 300-plus lbs. well and has the athleticism to become a force as a full-time starter. He will be ready to step into his own with yet another season to hone his talents while also hitting the weight room to become a dominant defensive lineman that Penn State fans have come to expect in the interior after a long line of first round draft picks and All-Americans who have perennially filled the role during the past decade. Cothren is in great hands under the guidance of Sean Spencer, who is no doubt putting in the hours to help him transform into the next "wild dog" who regularly makes life a living hell for whoever has the misfortune to line up on the opposite side of Cothren this fall.