The idea occurred to Penn State defensive tackle Anthony Zettel when he was talking to some teammates over lunch on Monday: How ’bout if they had a lion cub, in Beaver Stadium, on Senior Day?
His Senior Day — Nov. 21, when Michigan comes calling.
“It would be pretty cool, or if we got to pet it, like, after the game,” he said. “I mean, it’s not every day you get to mess with a lion cub. You can’t have a full-grown lion, because it’s too dangerous, but a lion cub I don’t think would be too out of the ordinary.”
Few things have ever seemed out of the ordinary for Zettel, on or off the field. Last season he led the Lions in sacks and tied for the lead in interceptions, and this year he continues to be a force for the team’s best positional group. He has also been known to do things like knock over trees and card holes-in-one.
He dealt last month with the death of his father, Terry, who succumbed to cancer at age 46. And outwardly, at least, the younger Zettel is coping as well as anyone could.
“I mean, it’s hard, you know?” he said. “He was my best friend. I can’t call him on the phone, but I know he’s with me. It’s definitely hard. It’s not getting any easier, as of right now.”
But he relishes the support of friends, teammates and coaches, appreciates that there is always someone there to lean on.
“I’m doing well,” he said. “Any time you lose someone close to you, it’s hard, but I know he’d want me to keep going — just keep chugging along.”
So he does. He talked Tuesday about how much he enjoys interacting with his linemates — how he and fellow tackle Austin Johnson are “a lot alike, probably,” and how end Carl Nassib (“Crazy Carl,” as he is known) has set the tone for the entire group, with his play and his manic approach.
“Every sack he gets is definitely energetic and memorable, just because he’s an energetic player,” Zettel said of Nassib, who leads the nation in sacks (11.5), tackles for loss (15.5) and forced fumbles (5). “When he makes a play like that, we all feed off that. The energy just flows throughout the defense.”
Nassib was named to ESPN.com’s midseason All-America team on Tuesday. Which, of course, does not make him immune to the barbs of his teammates.
“We like to get under Carl’s skin a little bit,” Zettel said. “It kind of brings out the energy in the meeting rooms and on the field in practice, just because he’s fun to watch when he gets all juiced up, excited and stuff. … They try to get under my skin and we try to get under A.J.’s skin, too, so we all just have a good time — enjoy the sport we love playing, and have a good time doing it, too.”
Zettel figures that Maryland (2-4, 0-2), this week’s opponent in Baltimore, will put its best foot forward in its first game under interim coach Mike Locksley, who replaced the fired Randy Edsall on Oct. 13. But he also believes the Lions (5-2, 2-1) have much to play for.
They are looking to bounce back, for one thing, after losing 38-10 to Ohio State last week. They are also looking to become bowl-eligible.
And while they might not be seeking vengeance, they are looking for something in that neighborhood. The Terps beat the Lions 20-19 last year, their first victory over PSU since 1961.
“I think every guy on the team is just like me, really competitive, and every loss, the guys move on,” Zettel said, “but it’s always in the back of your mind — any time you lose to a team that you know you should be able to beat. It’s definitely in the back of our mind.”