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Penn State Football: Can Zettel & AJ Rank Among the Top All-time DT Duos?

by on April 02, 2015 12:00 AM

Reid and Smear. Salt and Pepper.

Crowder and Hartenstine. Still and Hill. 

Adams and Kennedy, Odrick and Ogbu, Jackson and Benfatti, Johnson and White.

The long blue line of outstanding Penn State defensive tackle tandems is both historic and imposing.

In all, of Penn State’s 84 first-team All-American football players, a total of 11 have been at defensive tackle or middle guard.

And of Penn State’s 16 different All-Americans since 2002, seven have been along the D-line – including defensive tackles Jimmy Kennedy (2002), Jared Odrick (2009) and Devon Still (2011).

And that list doesn’t include defensive tackle Jordan Hill, a second-team All-American in 2012.

Can AZ and/or AJ be the next A-A at DLU?

ZETTEL AND JOHNSON

That’s AZ, as in Anthony Zettel, the lithe manimal with the calves of a ballerina and the career goal of being a MMA fighter, who picked off three passes and broke up five more last season on his way to earning first-team All-Big Ten status.

And it’s AJ, as in Austin Johnson, wider than the back road to Snow Shoe, owner of more tackles than Zettel (49 to 42) and possessor of a honey of a nose for the ball, with three career fumble recoveries.

They’re No. 98 and 99, respectively, in your program. And No. 1 in the hearts of Nittany Lion D-line coach Sean Spencer and head coach James Franklin, with lots of respect from the teammates who face them every day in practice.

“Having a 327‑pound dancing bear like A.J. Johnson inside that you’re dealing with, then the quickness and explosion of Zettel, is going to challenge those guys,” said Franklin at the start of spring drills.

VIEW FROM THE CENTER

Anthony Mangiro, Penn State’s starting center, is one of those guys. And he goes up against Thing One and Thing Two every day in Penn State’s workouts. He respects the two, together, so much so that when I asked him specifically about Zettel the other day, Mangiro politely responded this way:

“I’m going to talk about Zettel and Austin Johnson, if you don’t mind.”

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Sure, go right ahead.

Then Mangiro, who regularly displays A Beautiful Football Mind in his detailed descriptions of the nuances of offensive line play, went 71 seconds in analyzing the skills of his senior brethren across the line of scrimmage.

“Zettel is just quick, so good with his hands and his take-off that it makes me have to be quick with my first step,” said the 6-foot-3, 315-pound Mangiro. “I have to be very precise where I am landing my hands on him and make sure I’m not stepping under myself on the run game. For the pass, I need to make sure I’m not lunging at all. I need to make sure I’m sitting back. At the same time, he can just flatten you out and hit you with a bolt, too. He’s a very hard person to block.” 

If that sounds a little CSI’ish, you’re right. Mangiro earned his degree in criminology last December, and is pursuing studies in graduate education. It’s no wonder he absorbs and then meticulously explains all the clues of line play when facing off against Zettel, who is an inch taller than Mangiro but 37 pounds lighter, at 278.

Johnson, at 6-4 and 325 pounds, represents a different kind of challenge for Mangiro. He lines up just off the shoulder of the center, and is ready, willing and able when Angelo snaps the ball.

“Austin, as the 1-technique, I block even more,” Mangiro said. “My man (AJ) has gotten really strong in the offseason. He’s going to be a heckuva player for us in the fall. You have to be so precise with him, especially where I get my stab hand in on him. If I don’t get my stab hand – which is the off hand from my snap hand – in on him, he’s really hard to block on the pass game.” 

Mangiro actually smiled as he gave these descriptions. It’s as if he enjoys going mano a mangiro for 14 practices and one Blue-White Game in the spring.

“Both have great motors too,” he concluded. “It’s been fun so far in the spring.”

THE START OF SOMETHING BIG

Zettel and Johnson didn’t make it all that fun for opposing defenses in 2014. The duo started every game, as Zettel was moved to the inside from D-end last offseason by Franklin in a move that was mutually agreed-upon.

The results were crazy. As in crazy good. Zettel had 42 tackles, 28 of them solo, with 17 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, those three interceptions (including a pick-six against Ohio State), a fumble recovery and a fumble caused. Career-wise, Zettel has 27 TFL’s and 16 sacks. In 2014, Johnson had 49 tackles, with five TFL’s and a sack. In a game, he’ll stay at home more often and clog up the middle, while Anthony Zettels around.

“It’s relieving to know that you’re right next to them,” defensive end Carl Nassib grinned on Wednesday when quizzed about the pair. “They’re pretty awesome football players and I’m excited to see how they progress from the seasons they had last year. They can never be taken for granted. Single blocking on those two guys is very difficult. Zettel’s speed is phenomenal and so is AJ’s. AJ is strong as an ox. They free up a lot of space for us D-ends.”

TAKE A NUMBER

Their inside play was a big reason Penn State’s defense was among the best in the nation. Look at these national rankings in 2014: 2nd in total defense (278.7 yards), 2nd in fewest first downs allowed (190), 2nd in team passing efficiency, 3rd in rushing defense (100.5 yards), 6th in third down conversions allowed (30.2%) and 7th in points allowed (18.6 points). 

You get the points, even if opposing defenses didn’t last season. 

“They’re pretty impressive specimens,” Nassib said the other day. “You know what I mean?”

 

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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