More than two-and-a-half years ago, Anthony Zettel lined up for the Nittany Lions as a grossly undersized, 6-foot-5, 259 pound defensive tackle.
Fortunately for Zettel, he wasn't taking on any Big Ten starting offensive linemen.
It was his true freshman season, one he'd spend a redshirt on while working behind the likes of Jordan Hill, Devon Still and DaQuan Jones under the tutelage of former defensive line coach Larry Johnson, but the fit wasn't quite right. Though he'd projected to play at the three-technique defensive tackle position by the dozen powerhouse programs recruiting him out of West Branch, Mich., the Rivals.com four-star couldn't put on the additional weight necessary to thrive at the position.
As a result, Zettel actually lost weight while moving over to end, down to 253 pounds in 2012 and 258 for 2013 while playing behind Deion Barnes. The goal, however, never changed.
Zettel changed his eating habits, did plenty of heavy lifting under new strength coach Dwight Galt, and is now poised to spend his redshirt junior lining up as an integral starting piece of Penn State's front four at the three-technique defensive tackle position.
"When Coach Galt got here, I was about 262 and then we just lifted a lot of heavy weighs and put a lot of muscle mass on because I knew I wanted to go inside," Zettel said Thursday morning. "Coach Galt got me where I am weight-wise, and plus I just have been a lot more consistent in eating and diet and stuff, trying to eat like five times a day, meals throughout the day. So the weight is the big thing. I think I'm 279 and almost 280, so I'm trying to get up there."
That said, regardless of Zettel's eventual goals and determination, the transition first needed the approval of a certain new head coach and his staff.
Announcing the long-suspected transition at his pre-spring practice press conference at Beaver Stadium in March, James Franklin explained the like-minded thought processes of both Zettel and the coaching staff that led to the move.
"Zettel is going to be a defensive tackle," Franklin said. "It's funny because that was kind of our thoughts when we got here, but that was already his thought. I brought him in and had this conversation like I was going to sell him on D‑tackle. I was talking about it for a while, and he kind of looked at me and was like, 'Yeah, that's what I was planning to do.'
"I've learned, once it's been sold, stop selling. But, he's excited about doing it, wants to do it. Has really put on great size, tested extremely well, but really excited about him at the three-technique and what he's going to be able to do at that position."
Not that defensive end was an ineffective place for Zettel, of course.
Admittedly not ready for a starting role, Zettel had no problem making a significant impact at the position last season, racking up 13.5 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, and four sacks for 32 yards in losses - the second-most sacks among the Nittany Lions. Throw in his interception, a few pass breakups and a seemingly constant presence in opponents' backfields, and Zettel had no problem showing off the athleticism that earned his playing time in the first place.
Citing a target weight of 285 pounds for the fall, many of those traits and techniques haven't left the equation, Zettel said.
"Personally, I'm doing really well there and I love playing inside a lot more. It's a lot faster. Just reacting to stuff, a lot less thinking," he said. "Basically, you bring a lot of the same techniques, but at the same time, you have to learn to stay lower and use more leverage because you're going against double-teams and powers and zones and stuff."
Primed for his first public performance as a DT on Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium for the annual Blue-White Game, the 21-year old Zettel sounds like a man who has found more than just a home on the field.
He's found confidence, he says.
"Being a starter, I feel a lot more confident in myself plus the coaches feel more confident in me, so I just started not worrying about stuff that doesn't really matter. I can just go out and play football," Zettel said. "Being a backup, it wasn't a bad thing. I felt like I contributed a decent amount to the team and I wasn't ready to start.
"Now I feel like I am, so I'm excited."