Anthony Zettel and a group of his newest, closest friends came to Penn State when it was a different place, in a different time, in a different world.
On Saturday, the Nittany Lions’ star defensive tackle and 18 of his teammates will walk into and out of Beaver Stadium for the last time as Nittany Lions players. With them, they’ll take an era.
“We came to Penn State because this was the most solidified program in the country,” Zettel said Tuesday. “You knew what you were going to get when you came here.”
Well, things clearly didn’t turn out to be quite so stable in Happy Valley.
When Penn State celebrates its annual Senior Day on Saturday before its key Big Ten clash against Michigan at noon, fans will get to cheer on the last class of players who spent all, or part, of their careers during the university’s most turbulent times.
Next year, fans can say goodbye to the first group of players who came to Penn State in spite of the NCAA sanctions handed down in July 2012.
Kline's farewell: This year, it’s a farewell to those who saw it all, including six players who were among the last to suit up for legendary coach Joe Paterno — Zettel, tight end Kyle Carter, linebacker Ben Kline, guard Angelo Mangiro, receiver Matt Zanellato and defensive end Carl Nassib. Kline is a Dallastown High School graduate.
“I think this Senior Day is probably more important than any I’ve ever been around, because of what these seniors have done for the program,” head coach James Franklin said. “These seniors, in four to five years, have been through what most programs probably go through in 20 years.”
Eighteen of the players who will be honored Saturday either made the decision to stay at Penn State in the wake of the NCAA sanctions and with the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal still fresh, still raw, or joined the program in its immediate aftermath.
Some of them starred. Zettel dominated in the trenches the last two seasons and likely will earn a chance to do so in the NFL next season. Despite being an unproven walk-on, the last diamond mined by Paterno’s always-potent walk-on program, Nassib has NFL hopes, too. Safety Jordan Lucas was a solid cornerback the last two seasons before moving to safety in 2015, and Mangiro was arguably Penn State’s best offensive lineman the last two seasons.
But there was also Jordan Dudas, who started every game at Bucknell as a freshman in 2011 before becoming a valuable special teams contributor as a walk-on at Penn State in 2012. Linebacker Matt Baney, another walk-on who left St. Francis to join the Nittany Lions, has made a name for himself as a backup linebacker.
Decided to stay: They came to Penn State for various reasons, but they’ve long been credited as the core of players who helped keep the program’s future intact when many assumed it would crumble. They were the bridge between those who came to Penn State for stability and bowl games and chances at Big Ten championships, and the ones who showed up to get the program back to that level.
“I spent a lot of time with these seniors when I was doing official visits and stuff,” said junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who spurned offers from Alabama and Florida to sign with the Nittany Lions. “They took me under their wing. It meant a lot to me to learn from them in terms of how they handled the situations and what they had been dealt. … They’re very special. They mean a lot, in the grand scheme, to the history of this program.”
They stayed when they didn’t have to, and in doing so, they didn’t get that stability Zettel said they came to find. They got five head coaches — Paterno, Bill O’Brien and Franklin, in addition to Tom Bradley and Larry Johnson Sr. holding the post on an interim basis.
They didn’t compete for Big Ten titles, but they did get to play in a bowl game, did get to see the fruits of their loyalty start to bloom when the NCAA lifted the sanctions last year.
They’ll walk out Saturday, they say, with no regrets.
“Everybody had a choice to leave,” Zettel said. “There really was a point where there were very few teams in the country that could have done what we did, and most of the guys stayed. It was just the kind of guys that are in that locker room, and that was basically why I chose Penn State.
“I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t change a thing. Because, it made our program stronger. The players, the coaches and everybody just got a little tougher.”
It was a sign of the times, and a trademark of those who overcame it.
Nassib a Nagurski finalist: PSU senior defensive end Carl Nassib is one of five finalists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy for the nation’s top defensive player.
Nassib and the other finalists will be honored at an awards banquet in Charlotte on Monday, Dec. 7. Nassib was previously named a finalist for the Rotary Lombardi Award for the nation’s top lineman (offensive or defensive).
Nassib is the fifth Nittany Lion to be a finalist and the first finalist since Devon Still in 2011. In addition to Still, Tamba Hali (2005), LaVar Arrington (1999) and Courtney Brown (1999) have also been finalists for the Nagurski Trophy.
In addition to Nassib, Duke’s Jeremy Cash, Clemson’s Shaq Lawson, Temple’s Tyler Matakevich and Alabama’s Reggie Ragland are also finalists.
Nassib sprung onto the national scene this year and leads Football Bowl Subdivision in sacks (15.5), tackles for loss (19.5) and forced fumbles (six).