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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When defensive line coach Sean Spencer steps into the meeting room, he has some of Penn State football’s most peculiar personalities staring back at him.
“Unique is a nice word,” Spencer said with a laugh. “I got some interesting cats in that room right there.”
Penn State’s front four of Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson, Anthony Zettel and Garrett Sickels are as interesting and productive as Penn State’s defense, checking in at 16th in the Football Bowl Subdivision and leading the nation with 42 sacks. Twenty-seven of those sacks come from the starting linemen, who force opponents to choose whom to double team
That isn’t an easy task.
Nassib leads the nation with 15.5 sacks. Johnson is a force inside, second on the team with 64 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. The starting front four combined has 46 tackles for loss, with 19.5 coming from Nassib.
Zettel, whose breakout season came a year ago when he moved from end to tackle and led the team in sacks (8), tackles for loss (17) and tied for the lead in interceptions (3), also commands his share of attention. Sickels, the youngest of the group as a redshirt sophomore defensive end, has the benefit of learning from these three during his first season as a starter.
“I embrace each one of their personalities,” said Spencer, who refers to his linemen as the Wild Dogs. The group carries a large dog bone that’s painted blue and white onto the field on game days. “I know one guy is not the same as the other.”
With two regular season games and a bowl remaining, Zettel and Nassib, both seniors, are entering the home stretch of their collegiate careers and will be recognized Nov. 22 for Senior Day prior to the White Out game against Michigan.
Johnson, a redshirt junior, continues bolstering his NFL draft stock. The 6-foot-4, 323-pound run stuffer is arguably the top prospect of the three, complete with a unique set of skills he showcased earlier this season during a 71-yard touchdown rumble on a fumble recovery.
“It was kind of comical, but it was awesome,” said Nassib, whose boundless energy and intensity earned him the nickname Crazy Carl. “I don’t think I blocked one person because I was so tired, but he couldn’t even breathe.”
With outgoing and quirky personalities to match their high level of productivity —plus knowing how to push each other’s buttons, something Johnson said he and Zettel love to do with Nassib — it’s a brotherly type of love that helps set this line apart. It also helps that they don’t take themselves too seriously, as evidenced by Zettel, the team’s viral video sensation.
This summer Zettel was recorded tackling a tree and later roundhouse kicked a water bottle that nearly drilled an unsuspecting freshman — now known as elusive starting running back Saquon Barkley— in the face. James Franklin said prior to the season Zettel is “somewhat strange, in a very lovable way.”
“Anthony is controlled chaos and Carl is just crazy at every time of the day,” Sickels said. “Anthony, he’ll be calm, but then when that ball is snapped he likes to unleash. Carl, he just can’t sit still. He’s pacing, yelling to himself. … It’s controlled chaos versus chaos all the time.”
If one adds Zettel — the controlled chaos one — to Johnson, who is quick witted, even casual lunch conversations between the two are anything but ordinary.
“We just thought about how sweet a lion cub would be to come on the field our last game,” Zettel said. He then took their lunch-time request to Twitter. “I wonder if we’d get to, like, pet it after the game and stuff? It’s not every day you get to mess with a lion cub. I mean 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.”
Spencer said Johnson, who goes by A.J., is the one to ask the 400- and 500-level questions when they’re installing the game plan. Johnson wants to know the why. Nassib, who calls himself a nerd and who has medical school aspirations after his playing career is complete, sees the entirety of the plan and not just his role, Spencer said.
Nassib set Penn State’s single season sack record last Saturday against Northwestern, and while the former walk-on is still acclimating to the spotlight, he’s more than happy to deflect the praise and attention to those around him— even if they, too, are a little quirky.
“Any success that I have is chalked up to my teammates and my coaches,” Nassib said. “It’s been a privilege playing with this team. You know, the 2015 team will never be together again after this year, so we’re going to make the most of it.”
Audrey Snyder: asnyder@post-gazette.com and Twitter @audsnyder4.