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One Final Ride For The Original ‘Wild Dogs’

For one final and bittersweet game, Penn State’s original “Wild Dogs” will play together. The Wild Dogs, also known as the ferocious Penn State defensive line that consists of Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson, Garrett Sickels, and Carl Nassib, have played together in some form for a short two years, but will go down as one of the greatest lines in the modern era.

What separates these linemen from all the rest is not only talent, but adversity, circumstance, and bonds. Most defenses in college football bear some form of an identity and Penn State’s Wild Dogs, aptly named by the pack leader and position coach Sean Spencer, have taken on an identity that means more than just a bunch of loud linemen howling.

Of the three (likely) departing players, only Zettel was ranked as a four-star recruit by ESPN. Next was Austin Johnson who received only three stars, and then there is of course Carl Nassib, who received no stars, ranking, or recognition by any recruiting outlets. Nassib, an offer-less and undersized 6-foot-4, 215-pound prospect from Malvern Prep walked onto Penn State and as everyone has seen, transformed himself into a top-notch physical prospect for the NFL. Two of the three, Nassib and Zettel, are members of a rare breed: Paterno-era players, who will be on the way out after the TaxSlayer Bowl along with four other seniors.

The Wild Dogs’ popularity stems mostly from their high sack count and relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but they proved their worth a long time before they hit the field as starters. Nassib, Johnson, and Zettel had the option to leave following the whirlwind of the Sandusky Scandal, but remained faithful and put trust into the process at Penn State. The three remained, quiet in the shadows, on only the most dedicated Penn State fans’ radar. Whether it was sitting on the bench behind upperclassmen or taking a redshirt season (which they all did), these forces were waiting to combine.

Success doesn’t come easy or overnight. It comes through countless days in the weight room, on the field conditioning, and in the film room. The Wild Dogs play as one unit, and that closeness formed over those tireless nights.

Having prepared itself for the spotlight, the defensive line was ready to blow up the Big Ten in 2014. Johnson and Zettel were flanked by Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan for the 2014 season, where Penn State was among the nation’s best against the run and in total yards and points allowed. Star linebacker Mike Hull received a lot of well-deserved praise for the unit’s success, but it was the Wild Dogs who made the plays up front that allowed the linebacking corps to play at such a high level. Zettel especially was a dominant force in 2014:

Zettel was named to the All-Big Ten First Team after his redshirt junior campaign, but didn’t stop making noise there. Off the field, Zettel was dubbed as being one of the most interesting men in college football, and this amazing video is one of many reasons why:

Another season meant even higher expectations, and all eyes were on the interior line to continue its momentum. Meanwhile, Sickels and Nassib seized their starting positions as defensive ends and never looked back. Nassib, who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles said he had one goal in mind since he walked onto the team: to be an All-American. Nassib’s senior campaign allowed for him to become a unanimous All-American by playing like this:

Zettel was the star defensive tackle and Nassib was the star end, so the dark horse of the 2015 season was Austin Johnson (That’s not to discredit Sickels, a great player in his own right who is widely regarded as Penn State’s fourth-best lineman — which says more about the top three than it does about him). Johnson is extremely good and extremely underrated. Humble and team-oriented, the potential future NFL draft pick is described by Nassib as being “the strongest human being I’ve ever been around. He just bullies kids… He takes on double team like it’s nothing.” As one of the strongest (if not the strongest) players on the team, Johnson stands at 6-foot-4 and 323 pounds and looks like the dictionary definition of a space-eater, but shone when he got the chance to run guys down. Oh, and he did this against San Diego State, which prompted him to be a candidate for the Piesman Award:

With one game remaining for the three original Wild Dogs, the legacy they built will not leave the mind of Penn State fans anytime soon. The name Wild Dogs and pre-game exchange of howls and dog tags is only a sliver of what it meant for these players to be a part of a defensive line that was built from the ground up. Between being a walk-on, playing under three head coaches, and off-field adversity, it was hard to foresee Zettel, Johnson, and Nassib carving the legacy that they have.

The Penn State Wild Dogs will take on the Georgia Bulldogs in the TaxSlayer Bowl for their final game. Nassib summed up the attitude for the game very simply by saying the defensive line is “ready to kick some ass.” January 2 marks the last time fans, coaches, and fellow players will look on as these three young men leave it all on the field.

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About the Author

Tim Reams

Tim Reams is a senior majoring in labor employment relations.

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