Penn State Football

Led by unique starting quartet, Penn State’s ‘Wild Dogs’ defensive line brings the big plays

Austin Johnson recovers a fumble and returns it for a touchdown. Penn State beat San Diego State 37-21 in football Saturday, September 26, 2015 in University Park, Pa.
Austin Johnson recovers a fumble and returns it for a touchdown. Penn State beat San Diego State 37-21 in football Saturday, September 26, 2015 in University Park, Pa. CDT Photo

Austin Johnson is more than a run-stuffer.

The 6-foot-4, 325-pound defensive tackle takes up space and has a frame perfect for picking up double teams, and because he does it well, that’s been his label.

But Johnson in space, well, turns out that’s a beautiful thing.

The junior literally locked eyes on his moment of truth — of proof — last week. It came in the form of a wobbling, spinning football knocked loose from the arms of San Diego State quarterback Maxwell Smith.

Johnson picked it up, and ran.

And ran. And high-stepped over a hapless offensive lineman’s clutching hands. And ran.

“When I was running, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s about to go down,’ ” he laughed, after it all.

And 71 yards later, the biggest guy on the team had made arguably the biggest play of Penn State’s season so far. Huffing and heaving in the end zone — his first trip there, ever, and grinning ear to ear, Johnson let his teammates jump on him, ran out for the next series with them, and let them exclaim over him after the game.

“I think people really underestimate how athletic he is for his size,” said linebacker Troy Reeder, who joked that Johnson’s running style is “overweight fullback,” and said that the whole team knew “he was gone” once he picked up the ball.

“He plays the one-technique, so you very rarely see him out in space, but he’s extremely athletic, and it was a great play that showed it,” said Reeder.

Johnson plays for his family — three sisters, their kids, his parents, all of them. He wants to succeed almost solely for them. In fact, he got fresh motivation just before the season started when he held his newborn nephew in his arms.

“It’s on my mind,” he said, before the season began, of seeing his nephew for the first time. “That’s what drives me more, too.”

He said that moment was his “quiet place.”

But he’s charged with the “loud place,” too.

Rewind four quarters — about four hours — from Johnson’s touchdown.

Watch the field as the defensive line comes out of the tunnel.

See them all huddle around Johnson, the biggest guy with the deepest voice, bouncing and smacking each others’ helmets and pads, urged on by defensive line coach Sean Spencer.

The Wild Dogs sway alongside each other, padded shoulders clacking together. Johnson starts their chant, and they growl it back to each other, voices climbing with each repetition.

“Well, the first thing we say is that ‘I’m a dog,’” said Spencer. “And then the next thing we say is ‘I’m a villain’...and then we talk about competition. ‘I’mma kill it.’ ”

I’m a dog

Senior defensive tackle Anthony Zettel’s athleticism might have a far-reaching limit, but his determination does not.

Before the season began, Zettel was the king of viral videos. In one, he tackled and uprooted a tree. In another, Zettel, who trains in mixed martial arts in the offseason, roundhouse-kicked a water bottle out of a teammate’s hand. He’s done Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance in a dorm, and even donned a chicken head mask and strutted around in his room much to the amusement of friend and teammate Ben Kline.

Zettel, who, at 6-foot-4 and 284 pounds, combines with Johnson to bring over 600 pounds of Wild Dog body to the interior of the line, made FOX Sports college football’s “Freaks” list before the season and was regarded as one of the best players in the nation on either side of the ball.

“Other guys like Anthony, you go over the game plan with him, he’s very, very intense about it,” said Spencer. “And he wants to know how he can be the best in each situation.”

Last week, a cruel twist was sent the way of the fun-loving senior captain.

His father, Terry, passed away after battling cancer on Friday. And on Saturday, Zettel suited up and played against San Diego State, and led the team with seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery.

“This is something that he and his family have been dealing with for some time now,” said head coach James Franklin, after the game. “And really, the last three weeks, it’s been tough…I’m just really proud of him.”

The size of the dog in the fight helps, in Zettel’s case.

But greater still, as Zettel continues to lead his team through the loss of his father, has been the size of the fight in the dog.

I’m a villain

Spencer doesn’t necessarily love the fact that Carl Nassib’s nickname is “Crazy Carl,” though a nickname like that, combined with a 6-foot-7, 272-pound frame, could frankly put the fear of God into a quarterback scrambling for his life as Nassib bears down on him. The senior ranks No. 1 in the nation in sacks, with seven.

But when Spencer describes Nassib’s intensity, it’s hard to picture otherwise.

“He’s a menacing figure out there,” said Spencer. “His work ethic is what separates him from most people. He refuses to be blocked…The guy is one of the most intense human beings on the planet. You’re in a walk-through and he’s foaming at the mouth talking about making plays with his eyes bulging out of his head.

“He wants to be a doctor one day. And I told him if he’s in the operating room, I’m going to ask for another doctor because I’m a little bit nervous about him performing the surgery.”

Nassib, notoriously camera-shy (he even told head coach James Franklin he had a chemistry test in order to skip out of media availability), has a personality much better displayed by his action behind the scenes. Franklin constantly tells “Nassib stories,” and said early in the season that the former walk-on, who gained more than 60 pounds to become one of Penn State’s starting defensive tackles is “everything right about this country, and everything right about Penn State football.”

This week, the defensive end met a young girl with Down Syndrome named Abby while at Chipotle. According to Spencer and Franklin’s recount of the events, Nassib sat down with Abby and her mother to eat, and made both of their days. The mother emailed Franklin to tell him how impressed she was with Nassib’s interaction with her daughter, and the mother and daughter attended practice the next day — and Abby smiled hugely the entire time.

I’mma kill it

Garrett Sickels may be the youngest of the starting Wild Dogs, but his impact this season has been huge.

The redshirt sophomore is 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds, and has nine tackles, two tackles-for-loss, a sack, a pass breakup, a pass deflection and a forced fumble to his name through four games — he was the one who sack-and-stripped Smith to give Johnson his big moment.

“He’s a really, really good pass rusher, some of the best lean and bend that I’ve coached,” said Spencer. “He can come off the end and clear the tackle and really bend. He can twist well. He can explode at the point of impact. We are really excited about him moving forward…I’m excited about G.”

And, Sickels might be the best thus far at describing how it probably feels for opposing offenses to go up against Penn State’s line — it’s kind of a no-win situation.

“I think the big thing, for us, our whole front four, (is) if you’re double-teaming Austin, someone else is going to be free…but vice-versa, if I get double-teamed, (another player) will get free,” Sickels said, grinning a bit slyly.

No kidding.

“I’m a dog. I’m a villain. I’mma kill it.”

The starting four on the defensive line have helped Penn State’s defense rank first in the country in sacks, with 18 through four games. That quartet has 11 of those sacks, 72 of Penn State’s 136 tackles and 22 of the team’s 40 tackles for loss. Johnson leads the team in tackles with 23.

The Wild Dogs are earning national recognition. But still, they’re all about each other. Spencer treats each unique (he laughs that “unique” is a nice way of describing the characters under his tutelage) player differently, and yet the group’s cohesion is clear on the field and in the stat box.

Every Friday night, the position group gathers together and put personalized dog tags into a bucket. Spencer shakes it up, and players draw out a tag of a teammate. The two face each other, hug, and say, “I’m playing for you,” said Spencer.

“The whole ‘Wild Dogs’ thing is kind of something that we want to always have,” said Spencer. “It was pretty much instituted here last year, it’s really a theory, you work as a team, as a pack…I want them to play for each other.”