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Penn State

'Chaos' rules in Penn State's highly ranked defense

| Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, 10:33 p.m.
Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson (99) celebrates a sack against Akron with defensive line coach Sean Spencer at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 06, 2014, in State College.
BBarry Reeger | Trib Total Medi
Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson (99) celebrates a sack against Akron with defensive line coach Sean Spencer at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 06, 2014, in State College.

Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer's voice thundered his welcoming introduction at his Thursday morning teleconference with reporters.

“Can you hear me? I'm on speaker phone,” said Spencer, all but shouting. “I'm doing push-ups in-between.”

His nickname? Chaos.

“(Assistant) coach (Dwight) Galt gave me that nickname,” said Spencer, a three-year starter at safety at Clarion. “Play with organized chaos. I always use that word. I'm kind of hyper, running around all the time. Coach Chaos. It's what the guys call me. You have to have that to play the position. It's not a position where you can chill out. When they see their coach like that, I think they kind of feed off that (too).”

Spencer's commanding presence enters a room before he does. His high-energy coaching methods complement the makeup of his unit, which anchors the nation's No. 2 rushing defense. The Nittany Lions, No. 10 nationally in total defense, lead the Big Ten in rushing defense, are No. 2 in scoring defense and No. 3 in total defense.

Penn State's defense yields 14.6 points and 288.8 yards per game, but Northwestern racked up 361 total yards in a 29-6 victory.

Spencer, who followed coach James Franklin from Vanderbilt, wasn't too happy about it.

“Northwestern did a great job of neutralizing us, keeping us on the run between run and pass,” Spencer said. “We needed to be a little bit more disruptive. We did that in the second half, and it kept us in the game. Everybody knows the D-line is the strength of our team, and every week we have to step up to the challenge.”

The challenge facing each member of Penn State's defensive line includes living up to Spencer's standards and exceeding expectations.

Sophomore defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, a converted defensive end from a year ago, has moved inside and thrived despite losing significant weight and moving to a new position for a different coaching staff from the one that recruited him.

Zettel leads Penn State's interior linemen in tackles (17), tackles for loss (seven) and sacks (three).

“He goes hard from the beginning of the game until the end,” Spencer said. “Unbelievable work ethic. Disciplined. I let him be himself much like Coach Franklin lets me be myself. After he got that sack against Rutgers, he was screaming (on the sideline) and his eyes were bubbling up. As a coach, those are the moments you live for.”

Zettel also personifies what Spencer demands from each of his linemen: a player who doesn't need his coaches to motivate him.

“He plays to his strength. His strength is he's very quick and fast off the ball,” Spencer said. “Unbelievable hands and very good motor. He makes up for his lack of size with his approach to the game. Over 400-pound bench press. Squats a bunch of weight. Although he's only 280 pounds, he packs a punch.”

Spencer expects his players to deliver a similar punch when Penn State visits Michigan on Oct. 11.

“They started out pretty fast,” Spencer said. “That group is doing a good job. I wouldn't say great. They know the level of expectation has risen every week.”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com.

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