‘Relentless’ defensive tackle Anthony Zettel has speed, strength to succeed at any position

Penn State’s Anthony Zettel pushes past Illinois’ Michael Heitz during the Saturday, November 2, 2013 game at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State’s Anthony Zettel pushes past Illinois’ Michael Heitz during the Saturday, November 2, 2013 game at Beaver Stadium. CDT photo

On the second play of Penn State’s season, Anthony Zettel shed a block and made a beeline into the backfield.

Zettel latched onto Central Florida running back Dontravious Wilson, whose feeble stiff-arm attempt proved useless against the hulking defensive tackle. They met nearly four yards behind the line of scrimmage, Zettel reaching to wrap up Wilson before spinning onto his back to ride him to the ground.

Progress stopped for a split second, but there was no whistle to signal the play’s end.

So for good measure, Zettel pulled Wilson up and drove him back another four yards, finishing the play atop the ball carrier at the 25-yard line as the whistles started to sound.

Zettel’s first tackle of the day was logged as a 3-yard loss, and the television cameras followed him back to the line of scrimmage. Viewers learned of Zettel’s move from defensive end to defensive tackle after getting to see the motor that had Penn State coaches raving before the season.

“He goes hard all the time. There’s never a lapse in his game,” defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. “With just his motor and who he is as a person, it will make him be a really good, productive player for us.”

Zettel lived up to those expectations in the win over Central Florida, tying a career-high with six tackles — three for loss — to go with a sack, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. The standout performance earned a nod from the coaching staff as Penn State’s defensive player of the week.

To make the switch from end to tackle, Zettel said he needed to add muscle mass. The 6-foot-4, 274-pound redshirt junior consumed extra calories and completed a heavy lifting program to pack on more than 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. He said he got stronger and faster.

“With the workouts, my speed actually increased,” Zettel said. “So overall, I don’t feel any heavier. I feel actually lighter because I’ve gotten faster because I have better footwork.”

Zettel first started to build that combination of speed and strength at Ogemaw Heights High School in West Branch, Mich.

It’s where he was a state champion shot putter fast enough to anchor the 4x100 relay team. It’s where he morphed into a top offensive and defensive lineman recruit athletic enough to rush for 100 yards as the featured back in a game as a senior.

His motor was always running — in the classroom, in the weight room and on the athletic fields.

Douglas Grezeszak chuckles as he recalls the missed lunch hours spent answering question after question.

Grezeszak coached Zettel in track and field, but he also taught him in chemistry and physics at Ogemaw Heights. If Zettel didn’t understand a concept in class, he’d ask his teacher to explain it again. He was constantly searching for another way to figure it out.

“He didn’t just give up,” Grezeszak said. “Relentless would certainly be a good word. I certainly wouldn’t want to be out there and have him hunting me down on the football field, that’s for sure.”

Grezeszak helped Zettel to back-to-back state championships in the shot put in high school. He saw Zettel’s motor in the weight room competing with senior teammate Alex Rose as a sophomore. He worked to perfect his form on lifts five days a week for 90 minutes in addition to three-hour throwing practices.

The coach took advantage of his athleticism, as one of the four fastest runners on the team, by putting him on the 4x100 relay team. Grezeszak tried him at the second and third positions, but Zettel’s teammates always took off early — afraid — before receiving the baton.

“It’s like you’re standing there in front of a freight train waiting for it to hit you,” they told Grezeszak.

That was enough to move Zettel to the anchor position.

But his focus was on the shot put.

As a sophomore, Zettel finished second in the state in the event behind Rose, his first year competing in track after giving up baseball. Zettel was hooked from there, continuing to make strides in the weight room while improving his throwing technique.

He captured the state title as a junior, making him determined to repeat as a senior. He started watching videos of the great shot putters in history who used the same “dynamic glide” technique.

One was Ulf Timmermann, a German shot putter who won the gold medal in the 1988 Summer Olympics. Another was George Woods, who set the world indoor shot put record in 1974.

Zettel studied the grainy footage of Woods’ record throw over and over, eventually searing every little detail into his memory.

“I know when Anthony was a senior he could tell you basically what every frame-by-frame aspect of that throw was,” Grezeszak said.

Zettel would then consider whether to apply the slightest change to his footwork based on the videos.

All the work his senior year resulted in a Lower Peninsula Division 2 record throw of 61 feet, 8 inches to win the state title.

“The back edge of this landing area had a cement border that they had put in where they thought nobody could ever throw,” Grezeszak said. “Nobody will ever throw that far, so we’ll put a cement border there. And he crushed that cement border. Hit it right on. Big pieces of cement went flying in the air and everything else. That shot put will never be the same.”

Alex Rose considers Zettel one of the most committed athletes he’s ever met.

Rose played football and basketball with Zettel, in addition to mentoring him in track at Ogemaw Heights. He said Zettel was the hardest worker on the football team and could regularly be found in the weight room long after practices.

“My time being stronger than him was short-lived,” said Rose, who went on to become an All-American in track at Central Michigan.

Rose knew Zettel would be dominant in the throwing circle for his final two years, saying his competitive nature drove him toward his goals. He remembered Zettel as a standout in basketball who owned the paint and had the range to knock down 3-pointers.

But everyone knew Zettel’s future was in football.

His size and speed — and motor — made him a force.

“He never gave up until the whistle blew, which is a level that a lot of high school athletes would never get to,” Rose said. “He was tenacious and knew how to use his strength to his advantage.”

Rose realized how special Zettel was after their time as teammates came to an end.

It was Zettel’s junior year, and Rose was in attendance to see Ogemaw Heights play for the regional championship game at Central Michigan’s Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Rose hardly recognized the kid dominating the line of scrimmage.

“He just looked like a completely different athlete,” Rose said. “He was strong before, he was big before, but it looked like he’d been working nonstop since the offseason.

“And I saw him lift someone up and toss them like a doll. It didn’t even look real. It looked like an exaggerated cartoon. But that’s when I knew that Anthony was going to be a freak of nature.”

Head coach Andrew Pratley knew his Ogemaw Heights offense was at its best with Zettel creating holes for the running backs.

But due to injuries during his senior year, the Falcons needed him at running back against Traverse City Central. The decision was a no-brainer due to Zettel’s athleticism.

So Zettel caused quite the stir when he broke off a 64-yard touchdown run and finished with 110 yards on eight carries that night.

“It was kind of almost funny, comical to see a kid who had been recruited as one of the top offensive linemen in the nation to be cruising down the sidelines as a running back,” Pratley said.

Zettel also played tight end and on the offensive line that season. He saw time at middle linebacker after playing defensive end the year before. In addition to having the speed to power the offense as a running back, Zettel possessed a cannon for an arm that could toss footballs 70 yards. So Pratley let him uncork two throws out of Ogemaw Heights’ option offense during his career.

One was a Hail Mary at the end of the half. The other came on a designed double pass play.

He overthrew the receiver.

With his athleticism and work ethic, Zettel turned into a four-star recruit, according to Rivals and

Pratley uses the same word as Grezeszak, the track coach, to describe what made Zettel special.

“I think that was the thing that attracted college coaches to him when he was younger was just his relentlessness,” Pratley said. “It wasn’t good enough just to get a block, he had to pancake the kid, and if he could pancake the kid and bring two or three more down with it, that was even better.”

The path to Division I football started for Zettel in eighth grade. Zettel told the coaches that was his goal. He was willing to sacrifice any free time to reach that level.

Eventually, it became a constant battle to get Zettel to leave the weight room and go home.

“I think he would have set up a cot in there if we would have allowed it,” Pratley said.

Zettel’s motor is still running at Penn State.

Nittany Lions defensive tackle Austin Johnson, who lined up alongside Zettel against Central Florida, offered high praise for his teammate.

“He’s probably one of the quickest people off the ball I’ve seen in a long time,” Johnson said. “And he’s a very talented defensive tackle and he’s hardly ever tired.”

Zettel’s athletic ability, despite being “a little undersized” at defensive tackle, is crucial to the line’s success.

As Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop spoke about Zettel’s role going into the season, he said he spent the offseason scheming for his defensive line more than he ever has in his career.

Zettel was ready to wreak havoc in the backfield.

“Getting pressure on the quarterback,” Zettel said is the goal of Shoop’s schemes. “That’s our main key, and stopping the run too. You’ve got to stop the run if you want to be a good defense. So doing slants and stuff, just getting the offense off-balance is the biggest thing.”

Zettel proved to be adept at both from his new position against UCF, as evidenced by his sack and career-high three tackles for loss.

He’d been prepared for his new role before the season.

“I’m excited for where we’re going,” Zettel said. “I love their game plans and I’m excited for just playing on this defensive line at Penn State.”