As with any position in the preseason, there are questions and obstacles to overcome. The same holds true, of course, for this year’s defense. But, make no mistake, the entire unit from the front seven to the defensive backs represent the absolute strength of the Nittany Lions in 2015.
Despite the loss of 4 starters from last season's No.2 ranked overall defense, Coordinator Bob Shoop has his second-year squad primed to be as good as ever. We begin our series with today's look at a unit that has a long, deep history of stout play and stinginess along the Defensive Line.
Three-year starter, and former Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year, Deion Barnes, decided in March to test the waters at the highest level. Although undrafted, Barnes was picked up soon after on the free agent market by the New York Jets, and appears to be making a strong case for himself to earn a spot on their roster.
Barnes running mate on the other side, CJ Olaniyan, was picked up as a free agent, as was fellow 5th year senior Brad Bars. Both are in camps now with the Seahawks and the Giants, respectively, battling for a spot and we wish all three the best of luck and a resounding Thank You for their time in Happy Valley!
MONSTERS IN THE MIDDLE
Back to wreak havoc and mayhem in the middle, at defensive tackle, are none other than the dynamic duo of senior Anthony Zettel and junior Austin Johnson. This one-two punch is recognized as one of, if not the, strongest combinations at defensive tackle in the country.
Zettel has spent the offseason tackling trees, dunking basketballs, and showing off his roundhouse kicks, much to the chagrin of his head coach. What he lacks in true size, for his position, he makes up for in athleticism and speed. A preseason All-Big Ten selection, Zettel turned down a chance to turn pro in April and Penn State is much better for it.
His partner in crime, Austin Johnson, doesn't get the name recognition but is just as crucial, maybe even more, to the overall success of our defense in 2015. His ability to clog the middle and occupy extra linemen and double teams allows the rest of the front 7 the freedom to roam and perform at a high level. Although just a junior, most scouts have Austin Johnson pegged as a sure thing in next year's NFL Draft. Parker Cothren and Tarow Barney, along with Antoine White, will be called upon to provide relief for this Dynamic Duo.
LIVING ON THE EDGE
Despite the loss of last year’s starters, the defensive end position remains a strength. Garrett Sickles, a redshirt sophomore, is primed and ready to take over on the edge. Opposite him on the other side, all signs point to 5th year senior, and former walk-on, Carl Nassib. Both players come in with a high-motor mentality and are known for their Football IQ.
Joining them in the rotation, keep an eye out for senior Evan Schwann, sophomore Curtis Cothran, and redshirt freshman Torrance Brown. Despite the relative inexperience, we should not see much of a drop off in production from last season.
Unless the injury bug hits and hits hard, I do not expect to see any of the freshmen that James Franklin brought in with the Class of 2015. Shareef Miller, Kamron Carter, Ryan Buchholz, and Robert Windsor are all but guaranteed to redshirt and set their sights on the future.
THE WILDDOGS ARE HUNGRY
One of the biggest question marks at the beginning of 2014 was how would the loss of Larry Johnson Sr. affect the future of Penn State's D-Line. New position coach Sean Spencer quickly put those questions to rest with his own brand of Chaos. He anointed the D-Line “The Wild Dogs” and set them loose on a course of destruction.
The one-two punch of Zettel and Johnson are as formidable a front as you will see in college football. Highly regarded Garrett Sickles appears destined for greatness and Carl Nassib has bided his time with patience. The depth and rotation should be able to keep the starting unit rested and fresh. My advice to the opposition? You can run, but you cannot hide. These boys are hungry and coming for you like the Wild Dogs they are!