At Penn State, defense's success starts up front


Garrett Sickels said he would rather not look ahead. Then he did just that. Under duress from the media, the Penn State defensive end cracked and acknowledged, yes, he and his linemates might be pretty good this season.

"I don't really put numbers on things," said Sickels, a redshirt sophomore. "I don't talk. I just know we've been working hard, the way we've been working the last few years, and we're gonna take this thing to another level."

For someone who calls himself a "low-key guy," especially coming from New Jersey (he and Robert Morris men's basketball coach Andy Toole share the same hometown, Red Bank), this was a bold prediction. But it is hardly a stretch. Penn State finished No. 2 nationally in total defense last season with talent spread throughout the unit, especially up front.

With the departures of defensive ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan, Sickels and another former backup, fifth-year senior Carl Nassib, now top the depth chart. Both are quick and athletic. Penn State coach James Franklin said they were "playing at a high level, really talented, very dependable," during the spring.

The Nittany Lions have depth, up and down the line. But most prominently they have Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson, perhaps the best pair of defensive tackles you won't see on Sundays. Yet.

"I don't think there's a better duo in the country," said Zettel, a senior who has made every "watch list" for postseason honors relevant to his position. "But I'm just biased."

That doesn't mean he's wrong.

"We were pretty special last year, but I think we can be even better," said Johnson, a redshirt junior whom Franklin likened to a "327-pound dancing bear."

Zettel said he added more muscle mass since last season. Johnson said he improved at everything: "hands, gotten stronger. I feel faster. I feel better moving laterally, too."

Zettel said of Johnson, "When he gets better, I get better."

That's an intriguing, if not a scary, prospect. Zettel, 280 pounds and lightning quick, was named All-Big Ten last season with eight sacks, 17 tackles for loss and a team-leading three interceptions, including a 40-yard touchdown return against eventual national champion Ohio State.

This after he switched from defensive end.

A former Michigan high school shot put champion, Zettel also is known for prodigious drives off the golf tee, heaving a football upwards of 70 yards and firing a baseball more than 90 mph. In the spring, he shot video of himself tackling a tree. It was a dead tree, and it went down fairly easily, but Franklin was neither impressed nor amused.

"It's not something you feel great about as a coach, watching your All-American D-tackle throw his shoulder into a tree," he said.

Zettel and Johnson have developed a healthy rivalry and solid friendship. Before the annual "Lift for Life" charity event a few weeks ago, Zettel threw playful jabs while Johnson pointed a camera at him.

"He's a great man," Zettel said. "But he's a little bit naive just how unathletic he is."

Asked how Johnson outperforms him, Zettel replied, "He eats more food than me. He's a lot better eater."

But seriously, for a moment, Zettel said, "He's a lot better getting off blocks just because he's a lot bigger and stronger than me. Just a big, strong person."

Then he couldn't resist.

"A manly person," Zettel continued. "Pretty good lookin', too. He's cute."