PSU Assistant Gives Scoop on Star D-Tackles

Where must All-Big Ten pick Anthony Zettel improve? Why is Austin Johnson under-appreciated? Sean Spencer addresses those questions and talks about where each athlete might fit in at the NFL level.


Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer had a chance to do some unexpected film review recently, when he received a link to an Instagram video of Nittany Lion defensive lineman Anthony Zettel tackling a tree.

His take?

“Absolutely the first time in all of my career -- in 20 years of coaching -- that I saw a defensive tackle tackle a tree,” Spencer said. “It's not something we work on or practice, and I actually have encouraged him never to do that again.

“He did drive his legs on contact,” Spencer said. “I thought that was pretty good. He chopped up some of the grass. So I was excited about that part. But I was concerned about the tree falling on his right arm there.”

As well he should have been. Fortunately for the PSU coaching staff, the senior Zettel -- who teams with redshirt junior Austin Johnson in one of the more formidable DT combos in the nation -- was just fine after tackling the dead tree.

Spencer is knocking on wood right now, because his entire defensive line is healthy heading into preseason practice, which is slated to begin Aug. 6. And that starts with the foundation -- Zettel and Johnson.

Zettel is coming off a breakout year, where new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and Spencer wisely shifted him from defensive end to D-tackle to take full advantage of his athleticism. At 6-foot-4 and right around 280 pounds, he became the play-maker the new staff envisioned.

Zettel had 17 tackles for loss, eight sacks and tied for the team lead in interceptions with three (more on this later). He earned first-team All-Big Ten notice and is sure to land on any number of preseason All-America teams this summer.

When asked where he must improve, Zettel mentioned his quickness.

“That's his answer all the time, get a little quicker,” Spencer said.

But the position coach wants his star tackle to focus on some other areas heading into the season.

“I think his consistency in his pad level and his technique can be refined,” Spencer said. “He's a guy that's smaller, so his technique has to be flawless. That's how I want him to play, I want him to be flawless in his technique, his strike, his getting off blocks.

“His athleticism a lot of times will make a play for him,” Spencer said. “Now, when you couple that with great technique and pad level, I think he'll have an even better season.”

Spencer was quick to shoot down the notion that Zettel's game might not translate effectively to the NFL, pointing to versatile 274-pound Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett as an example of a smaller man being a force in the league. Bennett plays a conventional end position in 4-3 packages and moves inside to play three technique in three-man fronts during nickel situations.

“There's room for that small a guy in those get-off fronts,” Spencer said. “(Zettel) is kind of a tweener, a guy who can maybe be a 290-pound 3-4 end or a get-off front three technique.”

All of that said…

“We're just concerned about getting him to be the best Penn State football player he can be and the rest will take care of itself,” Spencer said.

Johnson is a completely different player than Zettel, albeit in a complementary way. He is much bigger (6-4, 325), and finished last season with a pair of tackles for loss and a single sack. But Spencer warns that the stats are deceiving.

“He had a great year,” Spencer said. “And in order for our defense to be the way it was, he had to play the way he played. Playing that one technique in our front is probably the most difficult thing to do because if you lose your gap as a one technique in our front, we're in trouble. He didn't lose his gap very often.”

In other words, Johnson did a lot of the dirty work that allowed Zettel, the defensive ends and the linebackers to run free. And though Johnson has two seasons of eligibility remaining, his position coach is sure NFL scouts are already paying close attention.

“In terms of plays, and I talked to him about this before -- making plays and not making plays -- in the scheme of the defense, if you do your job and do it to the best of your ability and then some, we're gonna have great success and you will be successful,” Spencer said. “Because even if you look to the next level, the pros just don't look at how many tackles someone had. They want to know if he's gap accountable, if he's sound in what he does. That's the type of player (Johnson) is. He does not make many mistakes.”


CATCHING ON

As noted earlier, Zettel had three interceptions last season. He also had a team-best 52 return yards on those picks, including a 40-yard score vs. Ohio State.

Zettel now has four career interceptions.

So how does he do it?

“Some of that, you've gotta credit Bob Shoop for making those calls, to drop those (DTs) in those voids where we think those balls are going to be thrown,” Spencer said.

But…

“In terms of actually catching the ball and doing the things he can do with the ball in his hands, it's unbelievable innate athletic ability,” Spencer explained. “That guy throws a football 75 yards, hits a golf ball 400 yards and throws a 90 mph fastball -- and can kick the top of a big bag with a spinning kick. So some of that is athletic ability he already had before I coached him.”


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