It wasn’t ideal — “it was rough on the body,” he said Wednesday — but he made it work, knowing full well he’d eventually put on enough weight to move inside and thrive.
Over the first three weeks of the 2014 season, his patience has paid off.
“I gained 30 pounds and it didn’t fit my role,” Zettel said of the switch. “Everything has worked out pretty good.”
The now 282-pound tackle was ready to change positions before James Franklin arrived at Penn State in January. The mental preparation for it began long before he walked into the new head coach’s office to learn he was moving to tackle.
Zettel said he feels opponents underestimate him because of his size. Or, at least they did. Perhaps not anymore, considering he’s fourth in the nation with seven tackles for loss and has been a hellion in the middle of Penn State’s defense through three games.
“I’m not your standard three-tech, but I feel [his quickness] is an advantage for me,” Zettel said.
Why? Although he’s bigger, Zettel hasn’t lost a step and hasn't had problems keeping the new weight on.
“I’m really trying to get heavier every week, a little bit by a little bit, and I keep my best skill, which is my quickness,” Zettel said. “I feel like I’m reacting to where the football is to make the tackle in the backfield.”
That’s stood out to Franklin.
“He was an athletic defensive end, but by moving him inside, he's now becoming an even more athletic defensive tackle,” Franklin said. “He's got a tremendous motor. He's got really good quickness. He's really sudden off of the ball. His spin move, I think, is really, really good.
“His tenacity is unbelievable. His quickness is unbelievable and he's not the biggest guy.”
Zettel was quick to credit fellow tackle Austin Johnson for his success, noting the redshirt sophomore is taking on a lot of double teams to open up holes for him to shoot through. Coordinator Bob Shoop’s defensive approach has helped, too.
So has the tackle’s motivation. Put together, it paints the picture of why Zettel has been such a key piece to the puzzle of Penn State’s successful defense.
“I feel a lot of motivation comes from trying to be the best player I can be here,” Zettel said. “When I’m out here I’m just a competitive guy. I hate losing. I hate that feeling.
“The big thing, too, it’s fun to go and watch film and stuff and make plays. Basically, I just love the game of football. The whole defense, the whole team does. That’s basically it. I feel comfortable and feel fine.”