UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A tackle of his doesn’t always have to be made in textbook fashion. When he needs to, defensive end Anthony Zettel can improvise.
Take last week, for example. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is acting all shifty in the backfield, thinking about the pass, thinking about the scramble, basically preparing to make a damaging play. Zettel is on to him, though. He grabs just enough of him, a shirt’s worth, and tugs him to the turf for a sack.
“He’s a guy that, in the almost two years that I’ve been here … he makes a lot of plays,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said.
Those types of sacks have defined Zettel’s season. He has been a defensive playmaker for Penn State and a relatively surprising one because he has taken limited snaps as primarily the backup for defensive ends C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes, Zettel has four tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception. Last year, he had four sacks.
His knack for making big plays is illustrated by exploring the ratio of his tackles to tackles for loss. In the past two years, he has 26 tackles, eight for losses (about 31 percent).
How does he manage to produce so many of these? Zettel believes it goes back to his energy. All his life he has played with abandon and a desire to improve.
“I think it’s just embedded into me,” said Zettel, a redshirt sophomore from West Branch, Mich. “I was always a wild child. I always liked to get after it.
“I don’t know the exact time when it kicked in. I think I’ve always been like a high-motor guy.”
When Zettel was in eighth grade, he and his father, Terry Zettel, visited Ogemaw Heights High School football coach Andrew Pratley and explained to him that Zettel had a goal of playing Division I football. Pratley told him he would need to keep his grades high, act accordingly, work more in the weight room than everyone else and study film.
“The average kid, they do those things and think they have hit the wall,” Pratley said. “He really took to that and went above and beyond. He really made himself a good football player.”
Zettel first starred as an offensive lineman, making the varsity as a sophomore. His senior year, though, his team was afflicted by injuries. Zettel played offensive line, defensive end, linebacker, tight end and running back. Once, when his Ogemaw Heights team was attempting a Hail Mary pass at the end of a first half, he accidentally overthrew the entire team. Zettel can throw the ball 70 to 75 yards.
This athleticism and versatility has served him well in college, he said. He knows what offensive linemen are doing for pass protection. He can effectively time a snap count. And he said the versatility also has contributed to his strength, one of his biggest assets, according to O’Brien.
“He’s able to play off blocks and explode off of a block and make a tackle for a loss,” O’Brien said.
The playing time Zettel gets is contingent on his week of practice. He competes with Barnes and Olaniyan for playing time. Lately, he has been seeing more, including starts against Michigan and Illinois.
He was reminded earlier this week that he had two years left after this to improve. Zettel, always acting with intensity, wasn’t thinking about it that way.
“The time is going by fast,” he said, “so I don’t want to waste any time.”
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.