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March 14, 2014

Six to watch: Defensive tackle

Blue White Illustrated publisher Phil Grosz rounds out the position battles he is most interested in keeping an eye on during spring practice today with his examination of the three-technique defensive tackle spot.

Learn more, below:

Austin Johnson (6-4, 302, Jr./So.)
Parker Cothren (6-5, 276, So./Fr.)

With the move of Derek Dowrey to the offensive line, and with the graduations of DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz, Johnson and Cothren are the leading candidates for the three-technique defensive tackle position.

Johnson was redshirted his freshman year but developed last year into one of Penn State's top three defensive tackles. He started several games at the one-technique spot but also played the three-technique position at times and finished the year with 27 total tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack.

Johnson is Penn State's most athletic defensive tackle. He was a terrific basketball player in high school, and the coaching staff will surely want to take full advantage of his athleticism. Putting him at the three-technique spot full-time makes a lot of sense.

Cothren, the only defensive tackle in Penn State's Class of 2013, selected the Nittany Lions over Purdue. He posted 57 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and four sacks his senior year at Hazel Green (Ala.) High. Although he ended up redshirting, Bill O'Brien praised Cothren's performance on the scout team last fall.

One interesting note here is that redshirt junior Anthony Zettel played in all 12 games last year at the strongside defensive end position. He was credited with 16 tackles and finished second on the team with six tackles for loss and four sacks. I wouldn't be surprised to see Zettel get a tryout at the three-technique position in the spring, at least in passing situations.

Those are my top six position battles for Penn state's spring practice sessions, but that doesn't mean several other players must emerge and other important position battles won't take place this spring.

Another important position battle will be between Brandon Bell (6-1, 226, So./So.) and Ben Kline (6-2, 229, Sr./Jr.) at the Sam OLB position.

Also, January enrollee QB Michael O'Connor (6-4, 226) needs to learn the offensive system quickly because he could just be one play away from being the starting quarterback if Hackenberg would sustain an injury.

Finally, I believe this will be a key spring practice session for redshirt sophomore RB Akeel Lynch (6-0, 218) with both Belton and Zwinak graduating after the 2014 season.

It won't be easy, but I truly believe James Franklin and his staff can match this fall on the field what Bill O'Brien and his staff did in 2012 and 2013. That is especially true if Penn State gets positive feedback in the six position battles in spring practice we've highlighted the past two weeks.

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