Penn State’s Zettel Returns Seeking More

The All-Big Ten defensive tackle could have turned pro. But he is back in Happy Valley with some lofty goals.

Following the 2014 season, four Penn State underclassmen considered making themselves available for the 2015 NFL Draft.

Ironically, the man who was likely to be picked the highest from among that quartet decided to remain in Happy Valley for his senior season. The other three all decided to move on, and each member of that trio left observers scratching their heads to some degree.

But that word “degree,” taken in a different sense, was one of the reasons All-Big Ten defensive tackle Anthony Zettel decided to finish up his eligibility this year.

“I was tempted to leave (for the NFL),” Zettel said. “But in the grand scheme of everything, I wanted to get my degree and I think there are some things I can work on that can put me at a different level next year. And I think we as a team are going to be pretty good, too. So there wasn't much thought that went into it.”

Of the three underclassmen who did declare for the draft -- DE Deion Barnes, TE Jesse James and OT Donovan Smith -- none is expected to go in the first two or maybe even three rounds. Barnes was not even invited to the NFL Combine and it will be something of a surprise if he is drafted at all.

And of the three, the most heavily lauded was James, who won honorable-mention All-Big Ten honors. But all three had graduated.

For Zettel, a key goal is picking up his degree in kinesiology before moving on. But it does not end there.

“I want to gain a little bit of muscle mass,” he said. “I want to get my speed up a little more. And technique is huge for me since I'm undersized. So if I want to reach my goal (of becoming) an All-American next year, that's what I have to do.”

From the outside looking in, there were concerns about Zettel's size heading into the 2014 season. He had moved to defensive tackle from end, and at less than 285 pounds seemed small even for a three-technique.

But it did not prove to be an issue, as he used his speed and quickness to become one of the top play-making tackles in the Big Ten. He ranked third in the conference in tackles for loss (17) and fifth in sacks (eight). He tied for the team lead in interceptions with three, and his 53 return yards (including a score) led the Lions. He batted eight passes, caused one fumble and recovered another.

Since that worked so well, packing on pounds is not a focus this offseason. But reshaping his body a bit is.

“I want to lose body fat and stay around 283, 285 this year,” Zettel said. “Just cut out a lot of body fat and gain muscle. … I don't want to get too big, where I lose mobility and versatility.”

Zettel credits much of his success last season to one-technique tackle Austin Johnson. The 6-foot-4, 324-pounder was usually able to occupy plenty of space, which allowed Zettel to do his thing.

“He gets overlooked by everybody right now because … he didn't have a lot of sacks or tackles for loss,” Zettel said. “… He's a big, athletic body, and people don't realize how athletic he is. So they take him lightly and, obviously, when they play against him, they realize they're done.”

Zettel arrived at Penn State in 2011, and through his first four years in the program (he took a redshirt as a freshman) played under four different defensive coordinators. But this spring is his second under Bob Shoop -- and the team's second under head coach James Franklin.

Which is another reason he's glad he returned.

“Our defense, everyone is more on point, (there is) better communication,” Zettel said. “The offense, there is a huge difference just watching those guys. It's a 100 percent turnaround. … And then just the players' and coaches' relationship is (better). That's a huge thing.

“I think as a team we're headed in the right direction,” he added.

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