Penn State Football

Cothren expected to lead Penn State’s unproven group of defensive tackles

Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer takes a selfie with some of his players on media day on Thursday, August 4, 2016 at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer takes a selfie with some of his players on media day on Thursday, August 4, 2016 at Beaver Stadium.

Parker Cothren has waited three years for this opportunity.

Cothren redshirted his freshman season and spent the last two years coming off the bench to give starting defensive tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel a breather. He said he learned “everything” from Zettel and Johnson.

After two years of watching and waiting on the sideline, and a limited spring (he did not play in Penn State’s Blue-White game), Cothren is ready to help fill the void left at defensive tackle by the departures of Johnson and Zettel for the NFL.

“Now it’s just time to go out and keep the tradition going,” Cothren said.

Penn State’s defensive line needs to replace three starters who are now preparing for their rookie seasons in the NFL. Johnson, Zettel and former defensive end Carl Nassib starred on a dominant unit for Penn State in 2015 before being drafted in the spring.

Johnson, who is now with the Tennessee Titans, finished third on the team in tackles with 78 and second in tackles for loss and sacks with 15 and 6 1/2 last season. Zettel was drafted by the Detroit Lions after recording 47 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and four sacks, and Nassib is now on with the Cleveland Browns after putting together an All-American campaign highlighted by 15 1/2 sacks.

Defensive end Garrett Sickels is the lone returning starter from that productive line, and Evan Schwan is in position to start at end this season.

“We lost some guys,” Schwan said. “We’re reloading. We’re not rebuilding.”

But the Nittany Lions will be relying on an inexperienced group inside at defensive tackle.

Antoine White made 12 tackles in 10 games last season as a redshirt freshman. Curtis Cothran has made the move to defensive tackle from defensive end after making 16 tackles and recording 2 1/2 sacks in 2015. Kevin Givens, another former defensive end, and Robert Windsor are both coming off their redshirt freshman seasons.

Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry sees talent, but he also sees plenty of room for growth.

Givens, an Altoona native, is among the young linemen with plenty to prove during camp.

“He’s got a lot of work to do,” Pry said. “He’s still very raw as an inside player. He’s got some great qualities, his strength, his leverage, his instincts, but he’s still growing. We’re still trying to get him a little bigger. He’s still got to gain better understanding of the defense and playing in the framework of things.”

Meanwhile, Cothren is expected to be a leader.

The redshirt junior has played in every game the last two seasons. He was part of the defensive line rotation behind Johnson and Zettel, who taught him how to use his hands better and how to improve his technique. Cothren made 24 tackles in those two seasons and earned the respect of his teammates as Zettel said in the spring of 2015 that Cothren and Tarow Barney could be starters at other programs (Barney is also gone and is currently on the New York Jets roster after signing a UDFA contract).

So head coach James Franklin said the team will be relying heavily on Cothren’s experience at defensive tackle this season.

His teammates are confident with him on the line.

“He’s had some big-time reps in some big-time games, so I think that’s not a worry,” Penn State center Brian Gaia said.

As a veteran, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Cothren has embraced trying to be a leader.

“I try to speak up a little more, help teach the younger guys when they get here, try to show ‘em the ropes,” Cothren said.

It’s a new role for him as part of a new defensive line.

Without the formidable duo of Zettel and Johnson, the Nittany Lions’ strength for two years is unproven going into the season.

“We were able to build our defense around a real strong D-line,” Franklin said. “We’re obviously in another situation. We got to get those guys on the D-line to mature as quickly as we possibly can.”

Ryne Gery: 814-231-4679, @rgery