Nittany Lines

Penn State football Q&A: Sean Spencer’s ‘Wild Dogs’ defensive line has a bone to pick

Penn State’s defensive line coach Sean Spencer said his players enjoy a team mentality and playing for one another.
Penn State’s defensive line coach Sean Spencer said his players enjoy a team mentality and playing for one another. CDT photo

Penn State’s defensive line is playing like one of the best in the country.

Defensive line coach Sean Spencer’s “Wild Dogs” rank No. 1 in the nation among FBS teams in sacks, with 18 for 148 yards through four games. Led by an experienced, athletic starting four in senior Anthony Zettel and junior Austin Johnson on the inside, and senior Carl Nassib and redshirt sophomore Garrett Sickels on the outside, the starters account for 72 of Penn State’s 136 tackles, 22 of 40 total tackles-for-loss, and 11 of 18 sacks. Nassib himself leads the nation with seven of those sacks.

Spencer spoke to media via teleconference on Thursday morning about his group.

Question: I wanted to ask about the “Wild Dogs” theme, and the vibe that you guys want to put out there every time you step on the field?

Answer: “First of all, the whole ‘Wild Dogs’ thing is kind of something that we want to always have. It was pretty much instituted here last year, it’s really a theory, you work as a team, as a pack...never disrespect to the Nittany Lions, it’s more so our theory of the defensive line, how we want them to play. I want them to play for each other. Every week, we do a dog tag ceremony, so to speak, where we put their dog tags in a bucket, and they shake it up, and we pull it out, and for instance it’ll say, ‘Wild Dog No. 95, Nassib’ and Zettel will pull out Nassib’s (tag) and they’ll hug each other and say, ‘I’m playing for you tomorrow.’ It’s kind of something that we try to build up. We actually got a big bone now, that we put on the field so everyone ‘eats.’ ”

Q: Sean, can’t let you off the hook with this “bone” thing. How did that come up and is it an actual bone?

A: “I had to make a special order for that. The first one I got was from like, PetCo, and it wasn’t really big enough. So I didn’t like that. I mean, the games get bigger every week, right? So we went and got a really big one, it’s about three feet long, it’s blue and white, representing, you know, we got the ‘We Are’ on it. It’s just something that one of the guys will bring out every week, they’ll carry it out to the field, and it just represents who we are, and the fact that we’re going to play for each other and we’ll always have each others’ back and work as hard as we can until the end of the whistle, within the legal realm of the game. It’s just something that’s another reminder to them, that we’re bringing that bone out every week.”

Q: Just to belabor a point, about the’s not a real bone, then, it’s not from an animal, but it’s like a plastic bone or something?

A: “Yeah, rawhide. When I walk around town with the bone, all the dogs come running out of the houses and they want a piece of it. But we don’t give that to him. Actually, my daughter made that bone. She’s a really good artist and I was really excited that she was able to put that thing together.”

Q: Among the starters, you have a lot of unique personalities. How do they complement each other?

A: “ ‘Unique’ is a nice word. I got some interesting cats in that room right there (laughs). You know, I embrace each one of their personalities. I know one guy is not the same as the other. My coaching style adapts to who I’m dealing with at that particular time. AJ (Austin Johnson) is a guy that has a lot of questions, you know, what I call 4-and-500-level questions, and you really have to talk to AJ and explain to him the ‘why.’ And other guys like Anthony, you go over the game plan with him, he’s very, very intense about it. And he wants to know how he can be best in each situation. Carl’s kind of a guy that sees it from a cerebral viewpoint, he can see the game outside of the body and kind of see all three levels and where he equates in that situation.”

Q: (Freshman) Ryan Buchholz made that move from defensive end to defensive tackle. What did you see in him to make that switch?

A: “Well, you know, Ryan is, first of all, a tremendous talent for us, right? He’s capable of playing in, and he’s capable of playing three technique. Obviously, in our first year, we did not sign a defensive tackle, so he was one of the guys that we always said that if we needed him to project to the side, then he could. We try to put the best playing in the best positions to be successful, and we think he’s got a chance to be pretty good there. He’s an extremely talented kid. He’s a guy that’s versatile to play into our three technique, and it was always kind of in the back of our mind during our recruiting that we could.”