When he was growing up in Michigan, Anthony Zettel could have chosen any sport he wanted to eventually excel in as a college athlete.
And we do mean athlete.
He could have played golf. His routine tee shot today carries more than 300 yards, and he has hit a few that have topped out at 375.
Track and field? Zettel set a Michigan high school record in the shot put during his days at Ogemaw Heights High with a toss of 61 feet, 8 inches, and also stood out in the javelin.
He very nearly focused on baseball. His fastball topped out in high school at 92 m.p.h. "but not accurate," he admitted. However, he gave up the sport because he would get bored on days he didn't pitch "doing squats and messing around in center field."
The winning sport turned out to be football, and Penn State's coaches couldn't be happier.
In his first season as a defensive tackle, the 6-foot-4, 280-pound redshirt junior made first-team all-Big Ten. Using his quickness to get around bigger offensive linemen and strength to overpower running backs trying to pick him up, Zettel led the Nittany Lions in tackles for loss (15) and sacks (eight).
And in a rarity for a defensive lineman, he tied for the team lead in interceptions with three, including a 40-yard pick-six that jump-started the Lions in their near-upset of Ohio State on Oct. 25.
"That doesn't happen a whole lot; that's kind of a strange hat trick right there," said defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who calls Zettel "a freakish athlete."
"He's so strong for a 280-pound guy, plays with such good pad level and has such great get-off and is so disruptive up front. He's turned himself from being a rotation defensive end to one of the top defensive tackles in the country. You saw his coming-out party this year."
It's the kind of season that makes people wonder if Zettel will make himself available for the NFL draft. He has asked for an assessment of his draft chances from an NFL committee but said he has no intention "right now" of leaving, according to a report last weekend from PennLive.com.
Zettel anchors a Penn State defensive line that ranks No. 1 in the nation against the run and will test the excellent rushing attack of Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27 at Yankee Stadium.
Zettel played defensive end his first two seasons in Happy Valley, recording four sacks each year. After his sophomore season, he intended to tell coach James Franklin at their next meeting that he wanted to move over to tackle, but Franklin had the same idea in mind.
He has felt very comfortable at his new position almost from Day 1, and he gives a lot of credit for his play to Shoop.
"I'm up 20 or 30 pounds, but I feel quickness and movement," he said. "That's the most important thing being an interior guy, coming off the line with lateral movement. Coach Shoop's defense has allowed me to do more movement and make plays."
The position also has added fuel to Zettel's nature in which "I've always been competitive," he said. That includes golf, holding his breath under water (he says he can stay under for 1 minute, 45 seconds) or just throwing a football around on the practice field with quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
"We were out there on the field messing around," he said, "and we would see how far we could throw it after one of our workouts."
And who threw it farther?
"Me, like 78 yards," he said. "But [Hackenberg] can throw way more accurate and he reads the defense, too."
O-line help. Paris Palmer, the nation's top-ranked junior-college offensive tackle who committed to Penn State last weekend, has signed a national letter of intent with the Nittany Lions and plans to enroll at the university next month.
A resident of Plymouth, N.C., the 6-foot-8, 305-pound Palmer, who played the last two seasons at Lackawanna College in Scranton, flipped his commitment from South Carolina.
Palmer has been ranked as the nation's top junior-college offensive lineman by Rivals.com, and the No. 1 offensive tackle by 247Sports.com.