- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve reached the midpoint of this week’s countdown, which is ranking the five players to keep an eye on this spring.
Up next is a versatile defensive lineman who was quite the spark plug last season …
No. 3 spring player to watch: DL Anthony Zettel
2013 review: Zettel played in every game and was a key reserve who came up with four sacks, an interception and six tackles for loss. He didn’t see as much time as those numbers suggest, but he was almost a lock to make his stops in the backfield. He finished with just 16 tackles, and more than one in three ended up going for a loss. He saw more time as the season progressed and was one of the nicer surprises for the defensive line. He played both defensive end and, in passing situations, also played defensive tackle. He was surprisingly effective inside on those situations, despite playing at just 258 pounds.
Why spring is so important: There are a few questions surrounding this line: Can Deion Barnes rebound from his sophomore slump? Can this defensive line improve without DaQuan Jones? Who’ll start alongside Austin Johnson at defensive tackle? All those answers will touch on Zettel one way or another. If Barnes struggles, Zettel could take his spot just as he did twice last season against Michigan and Illinois. Zettel also has the ability to play inside and, if the other defensive tackles start off slow, he could potentially make a permanent move and start alongside Johnson. Zettel finished second in team sacks (4) last season despite starting just two games, and he definitely has the ability to challenge for a starting job or at least earn more considerable playing time.
Best-case scenario: For the team? Barnes returns to old form and either Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey or Tarow Barney progress quickly enough to be a solid option at defensive tackle. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer doesn’t start Zettel but plays him constantly, and Zettel still finishes near the top when it comes to sacks and tackles for loss. Best-case for Zettel? His talent can no longer be ignored, and he either surpasses Barnes on the depth chart or he gains weight in the offseason and takes up a spot alongside Johnson. He leads the team in at least one stat category and is in the conversation as an All-Big Ten player.
Worst-case scenario: Zettel is forced to spend most of his team inside, and he’s unable to put on significant weight before the season opener. He does fine on passing downs, but Spencer is forced to keep him in on rushing plays -- and that’s where Zettel struggles. The interior becomes a defensive soft spot, and Big Ten teams run all over the Nittany Lions as a result. It’s nearly the opposite of the season before, and Penn State struggles against bigger running backs.
More players to watch:
3dJosh Moyer and Tom VanHaaren