Penn State Football

Penn State football: Nittany Lions enjoying depth along defensive line

Penn State's Anthony Zettel (98) will be one in a stable of defensive linemen the Nittany Lions will be counting on up front this fall. Penn State will conclude its spring practices on Saturday with the annual Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State's Anthony Zettel (98) will be one in a stable of defensive linemen the Nittany Lions will be counting on up front this fall. Penn State will conclude its spring practices on Saturday with the annual Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium. CDT file photo

The man leading the drills may be different, but the intensity and high expectations are still there among Penn State defensive linemen.

Tackling dummies have taken a beating this spring from defensive linemen, one of Penn State’s most vaunted units, with new defensive line coach Sean Spencer looking on. Their mission? Live up to their position coach’s nickname — cause “Chaos.”

“I want to say as far as the defensive linemen, we’re all going to be trying to put on a clinic this weekend,” senior C.J. Olaniyan said.

Not only is Olaniyan — the team’s leading sack-getter — back, the Nittany Lions also return defensive end Deion Barnes who was the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year in 2012 to the other side. Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel also return after each played in every game last season.

Brad Bars, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, is expected back in the summer and Carl Nassib will compete for more playing time after he earned a scholarship last season. Meanwhile, a host of talented redshirt freshmen are waiting in the wings.

“That’s the one position I think we’ve got as good of depth as any on our team. Defensive end as well as defensive tackle,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.

So much so that the Nittany Lions shifted two promising interior linemen — Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia — to offense.

Those weren’t the only shifts the defensive front has undergone, however. Zettel — who was a force from the outside at defensive end last season — will now lineup on the inside as a tackle.

It’s a move Zettel planned before last season ended. Then, he was able to help Olaniyan and Barnes from the outside. Zettel was third among Penn State players with six tackles for loss and was second to Olaniyan with four sacks.

And it’s a move Zettel has relished thus far.

“You bring a lot of the same techniques to tackle,” Zettel said. “Personally, I’m doing really well there and I love playing inside a lot more. It’s a lot more of just reacting to stuff, a lot less thinking. And basically you bring all the same techniques but at the same time you have to learn to stay lower, learn to use more leverage because you’re going against double teams and powers and zones and stuff.”

In order to deal with the more consistent grind, Zettel had to bulk up.

He’s up to 280 pounds from 258, an increase he achieved by adding muscle mass in strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt’s weight program and by eating up to five meals a day over the last few months.

While Zettel has increased his size, Barnes will be looking to increase his output after his numbers fell off a bit last season. The speed rusher from Philadelphia finished 2012 with a team-best six sacks and also led the Nittany Lions with 10 tackles for loss. Last season, Barnes ended up with two sacks and four tackles for loss.

“I think he got a lot of criticism early on last year,” Bars said. “He had such a great freshman year that he got a lot of backlash but he was doing his job out there. He was all about the team. He was working super hard. He was investing in the game. He watched all the film. Total team guy. Total hard worker. His stats might not have been the same (as his freshman year) but I don’t think it’s anything to take away from him.”

Olaniyan said he expects the defensive line to be able to show multiple looks this fall. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has tossed around the idea of using a 3-4 front with Barnes and Olaniyan lined up as outside linebackers. Olaniyan roamed around in a standup position at times last season.

“We’ve talked about putting it in there as a future just to change the formation on defense up,” Olaniyan said. “I’m comfortable in it because I played some form of it last year. So it wouldn’t be that much of a transition. It should be a smooth transition for me once we put in the 3-4 package.”

Curtis Cothran and Garrett Sickels took redshirt seasons last fall and add depth at defensive end.

Veteran players have praised their work ethic in addition to redshirt freshman defensive tackle Parker Cothren and freshman defensive tackle Antoine White. Franklin has expressed excitement to see what White and junior college transfer Tarow Barney can do.

“The move that we had to make, moving guys to the o-line, affected us a little bit at defensive tackle but we did that because we have a lot of confidence in Tarow Barney and Antoine White who came in at midsemester,” Franklin said. “We have a lot of confidence in those two guys. They’re going to have to play for us.”