After Spurning The NFL, Anthony Zettel Returns Seeking An All-American Season

Penn State’s defense dominated in 2014, finishing the season as the nation’s No. 2 total defense, and fifth year senior defensive tackle Anthony Zettel was one of the biggest reasons why. As the pass-rushing, run-stuffing force in the middle of the defense alongside partner in crime Austin Johnson, Zettel wreaked havoc on opposing offensive lines, finishing the season with 17 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and a team-high three interceptions — as a 6-foot-4, 285-pound lineman.

After a breakout season that saw the part-time defensive end turn into a first team All-Big Ten selection, Zettel received attention among NFL circles as a likely draft pick. Seeking to find out just how much his services were worth to a pass-rush starved NFL team, Zettel requested an evaluation from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee at the end of the season.

“Yeah, I think for insurance reasons and stuff that would be a smart decision, a lot of people told me,” Zettel said prior to the Pinstripe Bowl when asked about requesting the evaluation. “I talked to a lot of really smart people and stuff, and they said, ‘That’s a good decision to make.'”

Luckily for Bob Shoop and Penn State’s defense, Zettel decided to return to the Nittany Lions for a fifth season.

“I was tempted to leave but then I saw the grand scheme of everything. I wanted to get my degree and there were things I could work at that would put me at a different level next year,” he explained Tuesday. “I think as a team we are going to be pretty good, too, so there wasn’t too much thought that went into it after I thought about everything else.”

For Zettel, choosing to stay at Penn State means improving his game to surpass his gaudy 2014 totals. For a guy who lived in the opposing backfield all season long, you’d think there wouldn’t be much to work on. But Zettel’s goals for 2015 aren’t simply to meet expectations; it’s to become one of the best defensive lineman in the country.

“I want to gain a little bit of muscle mass, I want to get my speed up a little bit more,” Zettel said. “If I want to reach my goal as an All-American next year, that’s what I’m going to have to do.”

Zettel’s speed was apparent last season, as evidenced by his three interceptions. Capitalizing on the West Branch, Mich. native’s sneaky athleticism, Bob Shoop would have Zettel drop back in pass coverage from his spot on the defensive line, patrolling the middle of the field as an extra defender in passing situations. The move worked to perfection against eventual national champions Ohio State, as Zettel picked off a slant route from J.T. Barrett and sprinted down the sideline for a 40-yard touchdown return.

But while plays like the pick six get the most attention, Zettel laid the groundwork for his pass rushing and run stuffing ability with his speed. Nick Paige over at Black Shoe Diaries wrote a terrific breakdown of Zettel’s 2014 season including videos and GIFs, and in viewing the tape, it’s clear how his quick hands, tight footwork, and freakish athleticism help him beat bigger, slower offensive linemen. Though a bit undersized for a defensive tackle, Zettel takes advantage of that size difference by dominating guards and centers at the point of attack.

“I wanted to lose body fat and gain muscle,” he said, concerning his goals during winter workouts. “I don’t want to get too big where I lose speed. That’s part of my game.”

Photo: Dave Cole/Onward State

For Penn State’s center Angelo Mangiro, facing Zettel every day in practice is a chance to see the defensive lineman’s terrific skills up close, experiencing the daunting challenge of trying to block a hulking rusher that can beat you with both speed and strength.

“I think Zettel just being so quick, and so good with his hands, his takeoff, he really makes me have to be quick with my first step,” Mangiro said during spring practice, according to PennLive. “[I] have to be very precise where I’m landing my hands on him, make sure I’m not stepping under myself at all in the run game. In the pass, [I] make sure I’m not lunging at all, make sure I’m sitting back.”

“But at the same time, he can just flatten out and hit with the bull(rush), too,” he added. “He’s a very hard person to block.”

Though spring practices are just nearing completion as the Blue-White game approaches, Zettel is already gaining national attention. Along with Christian Hackenberg, Zettel was named one of the 12 Big Ten Players to Watch” by Sports Illustrated. He also received a ringing endorsement from head coach James Franklin as one of the leaders of Penn State’s defense after being named one of 13 seniors on the Lions’ Leadership Council.

In addition to leadership, Zettel will be called upon to replace the production of two key cogs of last season’s formidable defensive line. When you consider the departure of Deion Barnes and C.J. Olanyian, Zettel’s decision to return to Penn State is crucial to this season’s success. Outside of Austin Johnson, Zettel is the lone returning starter up front. But after seeing the improvement from Penn State’s younger linemen from off-season workouts to spring practice, his confidence in the unit continues to grow.

“I think inside we have two guys in Parker [Cothran] and [Tarow] Barney that could start at any other program in the country,” Zettel said. “Those are really quality guys that have improved tremendously over the last couple of months. It’s good to know that they have my back when I’m out.”

“We all feed off each other as a group,” he added. “I think we have so many ends that can bring different qualities that can help the line. I think that a lot of the younger guys have just improved tremendously since last year.”

After turning down potential millions in the NFL to rejoin his teammates at Penn State, Zettel has noticed not just improvement in individual players, but the team as a whole. After a full season learning new schemes under a new coaching staff, the defense only stands to get better — a scary thought for the rest of Big Ten. Not to mention, Penn State kept Shoop on staff after a brief flirtation with LSU.

“From a player perspective, we don’t have to learn another defense,” Zettel said. “We are a step ahead of where were last spring. Instead of learning a new defense, we know the defense.”

“It’s 100 percent different. Everyone is more on point, better communication. The offense, just watching those guys, it’s a 100 percent turnaround. As a team, we’re heading in the right direction right now.”

Photo: Bobby Chen/Onward State

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About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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