STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It's both good and bad when the biggest national news of a team's offseason is a star player tackling a tree.
On one hand, the college football offseason is long, and Penn State went through it incident-free. On the other hand, Anthony Zettel, a potential All-American defensive tackle, drove his shoulder into a tree.
"First of all, I said, 'Oh my God I think he broke his shoulder,'" defensive line coach Sean Spencer said Thursday. "That's the first thing. I got like these three texts, then it was like 10, and then it was like 12, 15, 30, and I'm like what in the heck? So I text him, 'Why'd you hit the tree? And did you know it was dead? Why'd you hit the tree?' And he's like, 'Honestly, Coach, I didn't know, I just felt like doing it and I did it.' So I was like, 'What we're going to do now is not do that ever again.'
"But he did have good follow through on it, so I was excited to see he kept great form."
A few months later, Zettel's shoulder is just fine, and he enters this season teaming with Austin Johnson to form the best defensive tackle combination in college football, a valuable asset that opens the door for the rest of the defense to thrive. While Penn State has a deserved decades-long reputation as Linebacker U -- just last year, Mike Hull was named the Big Ten's linebacker of the year -- it has always churned out its share of star defensive linemen, dating back to the tackle combinations of Matt Millen/Bruce Clark and Mike Reid/Steve Smear.
Zettel and Johnson are poised to join those decorated duos.
Zettel, a senior former defensive end, is only 6-foot-4 and 284 pounds, and he's one of the quickest, most athletic and most disruptive tackles in the game, one who makes a living in opposing backfields. Penn State ranked third nationally in yards per play allowed last year, and Zettel led the Nittany Lions in sacks (eight), tackles for loss (17) and interceptions (three). The first two statistics are usually reserved for defensive ends or linebackers, and the latter is usually reserved for defensive backs. Zettel did it all as a defensive tackle, highlighted by his pick-six of J.T. Barrett that turned the tide against Ohio State in a game Penn State ended up pushing to double overtime. On the play, both Zettel and Johnson dropped into coverage on a zone blitz, and Zettel returned the pick 40 yards for a touchdown, which Spencer called "one of the best plays I've ever seen live on the field."
Zettel's flashy plays -- and tree tackling -- get most of the publicity, but Johnson may be every bit as good. The 6-foot-4, 323-pound junior finished fifth on the team with 49 tackles despite often having the job of occupying two blockers at once while playing the one-technique on the nose in Penn State's defense. Zettel received first-team All-Big Ten honors; Johnson was only an honorable mention, despite playing a massive role in the nation's No. 3 run defense.
"He's definitely overlooked nationally," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "But the people who don't overlook him are the guys who are coaching at the next level and the personnel people at the next level. They know exactly who Austin Johnson is.
"Austin is one of those guys who does have a chip on his shoulder. He embraces Anthony's success, and he's been as supportive as anybody, but I think he looks at it and says, 'I'm a pretty good player too.' He should set his goals to be the ultimate teammate and all-Big Ten performer, and there's no reason that when he's done playing at Penn State that he can't have a successful career at the next level."
Having big athletes like Zettel and Johnson in the middle of the defense gives Shoop a lot of flexibility, as seen on the interception return. Shoop said he intends to move Zettel around, too, giving him an opportunity to put together a deeper resume for the NFL, where he could play defensive end. With them in the middle, though, Johnson occupies blockers to free up those around him, while Zettel's penetration benefits the secondary awaiting bad decisions by quarterbacks under pressure.
With Zettel and Johnson wreaking havoc up front, seven of Penn State's 13 opponents failed to gain 70 yards on the ground, while eventual national champion Ohio State averaged a season-low 3.9 yards per play against the Lions. Despite often being put in undesirable positions because of the offense's struggles, the defense came through time after time, ranking sixth in third-down defense (30.1 percent conversion rate) and 13th in red-zone touchdown percentage (46.2 percent), pushing the Lions to a bowl game despite their dire scholarship situation.
The defense as a whole had few weaknesses, and while Hull was the undisputed leader of the unit, Johnson and Zettel set the tone for just about everything the Lions did. That's good news for Hull's replacement, Nyeem Wartman-White, a junior who finished second on the team in tackles as the weak-side linebacker but is now moving to Hull's spot in the middle.
"I'm actually happy that I'm behind them -- I'm getting protected," Wartman-White said with a laugh. "They keep telling me they're going to take all the plays from me, so I'm pretty interested for this year…. I knew how good those two were, but I didn't really notice how much of a luxury it was to play behind them until I got a few snaps behind them, and you feel the difference."
While the loss of Hull and both starting defensive ends leaves holes to fill, the Penn State defense remains in good hands. Penn State is unlikely to win a conference title, but its defense is good enough to make it a contender in any game, as Ohio State experienced last year in nearly seeing its championship hopes dashed. For so long, coaching continuity had been a big part of Penn State football under Joe Paterno, but when Shoop was given a raise and turned down an opportunity to go to LSU, it ensured Penn State would have the same defensive coordinator for the first time since Tom Bradley's final season in 2011. Spencer, meanwhile, came with head coach James Franklin as the replacement for longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who's now at Ohio State.
Spencer wasn't sure what to think about Zettel when he arrived at Penn State, but it didn't take long to learn that he was working with one of the nation's top players, who quickly alleviated his concerns about whether he could handle playing the three-technique despite being slightly undersized for the position.
It's rare that defensive tackles are two of the best all-around athletes on the team, but it's a big advantage, as teams like Alabama and LSU have often shown over the last decade with their athletic linemen. Zettel claims he can throw a football 70 yards -- Shoop half-seriously said that he might be Penn State's second-best Hail Mary quarterback behind Christian Hackenberg -- and a baseball 90 mph. He does MMA training, and he also just hit his second hole-in-one in golf and has been known to dunk. Spencer said Johnson, despite being 323 pounds, is quick enough to play defensive end in another scheme, and that's he a good basketball player and the model for the type of big and athletic defensive tackle he's looking for on the recruiting trail.
"His skill set is a tremendous," Zettel said of Johnson. "The guy is 32 pounds, but he can move just like me. It's very satisfying when you've got a guy taking up double teams and I can go one-on-one with a guard, because he's taking that center on. It's rare in a nose guard, but he can do it all. Overall, he makes the whole defense run."
A year later, after the unfamiliarity with another new coaching staff coming in, there are few surprises. Spencer is fully aware of the talent and athleticism at his disposal, which means that the only real surprises come when text messages start coming in about a tree being tackled. Franklin initially said it's not something he felt great about. Spencer expressed thoughts along the same lines. Shoop, meanwhile, says he laughed and retweeted it, while Zettel's partner in crime, Johnson, said he had no intention of repeating the feat.
"I didn't see the video until my mom told me, 'Zettel tackled a tree,' and I was like, 'What?'" Johnson said. "It was impressive. It was a dead tree, but it was impressive."
They're competitive with each other, and they make life easier for each other and everyone else on the defense around them, a defense that can disrupt a Big Ten title race that features presumed playoff contenders in Ohio State and Michigan State. They'll both eventually hear their names called in the NFL draft based on what they've done and what they're sure to do this fall.
Just don't expect any more trees to be tackled along the way.