Preseason camp will, as always, include some key position battles, but Penn State's depth chart has already taken an approximate shape. We're breaking down every spot on the field and who stands where heading into August.
Penn State will look for big contributions from Zettel (left) and Johnson this fall.
Today we head into the trenches on the defensive side of the ball and break down the defensive line.
Official Post-Spring Depth Chart
DE Garrett Sickels
DE Curtis Cothran
DT Parker Cothren
Who everyone is talking about: Austin Johnson
Although Baublitz is listed ahead of him on the most recent depth chart, few people would be surprised to see Johnson in the starting lineup by the middle of the season, if not by the opener. The big man moves like a smaller man and had a strong spring after spending 2012 on the Dirty Show. If DaQuan Jones has a strong senior season at the three-technique spot, Johnson and Baublitz will have less pressure on them at the one. Don't be surprised to see Johnson see some time at both tackle spots throughout the year.
Rice: Who I'm looking at: Anthony Zettel
Based upon his tremendous production in spot duty last season (four sacks), many expected Zettel would slide in to the spot opposite Deion Barnes this spring and make a home there. But C.J. Olaniyan improved his performance on the field and in the classroom and emerged as the starter, at least for now. The electric Zettel will still have a chance to win the job, though, and what sets him apart from Penn State's other defensive ends is his ability to slide inside, which allows the Nittany Lions to put more pass rushers on the field on third downs.
Fitz: Who I'm looking at: Derek Dowrey
I probably would have gone with C.J. Olaniyan, as his marked improvement will likely make him the starter on opening day, but I wanted to touch on the defensive tackle situation. Larry Johnson has a unique opportunity to get a lot of his young guys in early in the season. We’ve heard good things about Dowrey, who could break his way into that four-man rotation. He’s listed as the second-teamer behind DaQuan Jones, and has played both the one- and three-techniques in his year on campus. He’s likely to end up at the one-technique, as he has the build for it and has really stepped up in the weight room. He’s not a guy who will post huge numbers from that position, but he gives Johnson another guy who will play fast and eat up blockers inside. He may not be ready for the prime time just yet, but with four years left I like where he’s at in his career path.
Newcomer to watch: Parker Cothren
Many recruiting experts pinpointed the Alabama native as one of the most intriguing sleepers in Penn State's Class of 2013, and a lack of experience in front of him could mean Cothren sees the field quickly. Larry Johnson loves to get his true freshmen some playing time, and Cothren, who is reportedly already 285 pounds, has the athleticism to fit that bill. If he can get comfortable with the schemes quickly, it wouldn't be a shocker see him burn his redshirt. He was a little bit of a late-bloomer in high school, but he has developed at a fast pace in the last year.
On the horizon
Penn State’s scholarship situation has certainly had an impact on the defensive line. The Nittany Lions have both youth and talent on campus right now, but you can always use bodies up front. Penn State will look to take two defensive linemen in the class, ideally one tackle and one who could play both tackle and end, eventually winding up on the interior. Best bets right now include Ricky Walker, Thomas Holley and the recently offered Antoine White. Each have already been on campus this calendar year. Walker’s next Penn State visit will either be in August or for a game this fall. Holley may be able to swing an August visit as well, and White could be on campus as soon as Wednesday. While it may not seem like the Nittany Lions have made much headway on their defensive line class, it’s still too early to panic considering the respective decision timelines of those with offers.
2013 expectations: The key to an effective defensive line is depth, and though there isn't a tremendous amount of experience in the Penn State front four, the depth across the board is as good as the sanctioned Nittany Lions have at any position group. But a rotation is only as good as its weakest lineman, and Penn State will need its unproven players to quickly prove that there won't be a dropoff from first-stringer to second-stringer. Offenses will key on Barnes more this season, so the Nittany Lions will need Olaniyan, Zettel and Bars to provide some presence on the other side. At no other position group, with the exception of quarterback, are there more unknowns entering the 2013 season. But, just as at quarterback, the talent level is enough reason for optimism.