Anthony Zettel stood a few feet inside the front door of Penn State football’s media room, across the south tunnel hallway from the Nittany Lions’ locker room.
Zettel is so big that traffic immediately became one-way and nearly stopped. Mammoth Derek Downey turned sideways to slip by. Barely.
As is often the case, Zettel had a big smile on his face.
Not because of the bottleneck. A newly-christened defensive tackle, Zettel may be as big as Chris Christie, but he’s a whole heckuva lot nicer. It's that Anthony Zettel loves Penn State football. Loves playing it.
“It’s good to be done,” he said about 30 minutes after his last official practice for the next 15 weeks. “But at the same time you really wish we could keep going at it.”
Zettel is the kind of big kid – big, as in 6-foot-4 and 279 pounds – who’s easy to like and to enjoy. He’s one of those people who literally is his name – definitely more Zettel than Anthony. Zinger, zealous, zippy. Won’t Zettel for less.
Zettel smiles a lot. Sort of. His goofy grin is perpetually crooked, so you’re never quite sure. His is an understated humor, both sly and wry, as his flow of soft-spoken one-liners is always told with only half of that grin. It’s a way for the tackle to keep you off-guard. Is he being Anthony? Or Zettel? Buzz cut or mohawk? He’s worn them both. You can never be sure. Like when he was asked why he played with a bare midriff in the Blue-White Game on Saturday.
“It was hot out there,” said Zettel. Grin. “And I was starting to get some belly hair, so I thought I’d show it.
Or what he wants to do if pro football doesn’t work out. (His media guide bio says his career goals are strength and conditioning coach or chiropractor.)
“I’m thinking MMA,” he says ... “I use it to train.”
“So, you wrestled in high school?” he’s asked. A reasonable question, given Zettel’s size and position in (football) life – a defensive end, he moved inside to tackle in March.
“No, basketball. Baseball, too. And some track.”
Like track is an afterthought. At Ogemaw Heights High School in Michigan, Zettel set a state scholastic record in the shot put, with a heave of 61 feet, 8 inches. He’s strong, as well as crafty. Against the Michigan Wolverines last season, after lining up at left defensive end, Zettel floated back into coverage and picked off a Devin Gardner pass, running it back 18 yards to the Michigan 20. Penn State scored a touchdown on the very next play.
Gardner said he never saw Zettel. Really?
BIG RETURN TO THE BIG HOUSE
Zettel will surely be visible when the Nittany Lions visit the state of Michigan for the first time since 2009. They’ll meet the Wolverines in The Big House on Oct. 11 for the first Big Ten night football game in Wolverine history. A resident of West Branch, Mich., Zettel has already been to a record-setting game in Michigan Stadium. As a U-M recruit on Dec. 10, 2010, Zettel was part of The Big Chill at The Big House, when the Michigan ice hockey team beat Michigan State, 5-0. The crowd of 113,411 that night was the largest to ever see a hockey game.
Back then, Zettel’s future looked to be on the offensive line. Now, as he enters his fourth season at Penn State (third eligibility-wise), Zettel has found a home. This spring, he moved from defensive end to defensive tackle, where in 2013 he majored in sacks (four in 2013, second on the team), tackles for a loss (six, third on the team) and a disproportionate amount of solo tackles (11 of his 16).
Zettel redshirted in 2011, then played in spots in 2012. Career-wise, he has eight sacks, 10 tackles for a loss and 31 tackles – 20 of them solo – as essentially a part-time, yet effective player.
Last season, Zettel came up big in the biggest games – two TFL vs. Ohio State; two sacks and two TFL against Wisconsin; and that pick against Michigan. Zettel’s a play-maker, and with veterans C.J. Olaniyan and Deoin Barnes holding the starting jobs at defensive end, moving him inside made sense.
“I like DE,” he said on Saturday after collecting a sack and two tackles for a loss. “I like it a lot.”
It shows. Zettel was given the Jim O'Hora Award at the end of spring drills as Penn State's most improved defensive player. No joke.
James Franklin was hoping the switch would work. But the new head coach wasn’t so sure when, right before the start of spring drills, he summoned Zettel to his second floor office in Lasch Building.
“I brought him in and had this conversation. I was going to sell him on D-tackle,” Franklin recalled. “I was talking about it for a while, and he kind of looked at me and was like, ‘Yeah, that's what I was planning to do.’ I learned a long time ago once it's been sold, stop selling.”
That Zettel made his coach go through the whole painful spiel is pretty characteristic. As much as he loves the sport he plays, Zettel is quietly delighted when someone’s being played. Take the final question thrown his way on Saturday afternoon, as he continued to make a mess of the egress.
“What’s the biggest difference between playing defensive end last spring and defensive tackle this spring,” he was asked.
OK, I’ll bite, you know Zettel is thinking as he gets that crooked grin.
“I get to eat more.”
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