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Penn State's Curtis Cothran grinds to starting defensive tackle role

The fifth-year senior from Council Rock North will get his first start in a season-opening game Saturday.

Penn State defensive tackle Curtis Cothran answers questions from a reporter last August.
Penn State defensive tackle Curtis Cothran answers questions from a reporter last August.Read moreMICHAEL ARES / Staff Photographer

Curtis Cothran has bounced around in his career at Penn State, from defensive end to defensive tackle, from not playing to playing part-time to sitting out a suspension to emerging as a starter.

Now a fifth-year senior, the 6-foot-5, 295-pound graduate of Council Rock North High School has settled in at tackle, forming a portion of the Nittany Lions' up-the-middle defense that coach James Franklin thinks will be rock-solid this season.

For the first time in his career, Cothran will start a season opener – Saturday against Akron at Beaver Stadium – and he is ready.

"Yeah, it's definitely a blessing," he said earlier this week. "I've grinded out a lot of years here. Obviously, you always want to be the starter in your mind. So to finally be able to say that I am one, it's definitely a blessing.

"It shows the amount of work that goes into it. I mean, nothing's ever easy, especially in college football. Through the years of grinding everything out, I'm thankful to be here."

It truly has been a grind.

Cothran redshirted his first season when Bill O'Brien was the head coach. He saw action in just one game in 2014 with Franklin in charge, and played in all 13 games as a sophomore.

Franklin asked him after that season to switch to defensive tackle, which meant not only learning a new position but also starting a diet that helped him add weight with a lot of carbs and the occasional protein shake, which came in at almost 1,000 calories. He has put on nearly 60 pounds since then.

Cothran sat out the first four games last year for an unspecified violation, but Franklin kept him with the program the entire time. He wound up starting the last eight games of the season, with a career-best three tackles for loss in the Lions' Big Ten-championship win over Wisconsin.

"Starting off the season as a backup, it's definitely a humbling role, but it was not something that I wasn't used to," he said. "I'd been a backup for a few years. But it was definitely a grind to be able to start and then, once I got my starting opportunity, it was something I tried to take hold of."

Franklin is expecting a big season for Cothran.

"Curtis is a guy who was a 230-something-pound defensive end when we got here, that we transitioned into a defensive tackle," the coach said. "He really embraced it. He's got tremendous length, strength, power, athleticism. We think he can be a playmaker at the defensive tackle position. I'm excited to see what he's going to do this year."

Franklin said with Cothran, fellow tackle Parker Cothren and middle linebacker Jason Cabinda, the Nittany Lions are strong up the middle "and we feel really good about it."

Yes, there is confusion at the defensive tackle spots when Cothran, from Newtown, Bucks County, and Cothren, from Huntsville, Ala., are in the game at the same time.

"People definitely confuse us a little bit," Cothran said. "They like to put my name with an 'en' a lot of times. I remember a couple of times people walked up to me and are like, 'Oh, you're from Huntsville, Ala., and we heard about you.' And I'm like, 'No, that's the other Cothren. Appreciate the attempt.' "

Cothran, who graduated last month with a degree in criminology, said his goals for his final season are team ones, "just do the best we can and hopefully crank out wins and make it back to where we were."

For now, though, he's eager to get started.

"I'm grinning ear to ear," he said. "It's nice to be able to face an opponent finally. We've been beating each other up for the last couple of weeks, so it's definitely fun to put on the pads and show our skills in front of 107,000."