In NFL circles, players like Anthony Zettel are referred to as “tweeners.” The former Penn State D-lineman lacks the requisite girth to be an interior run-stuffer at the next level, but his frame isn’t quite long enough to play defensive end. Thus, Zettel doesn’t neatly project to a standard NFL position. But what he does have is an extraordinary blend of athleticism and instincts that helped him dominate collegiate competition. A two-time All-Big Ten performer, Zettel racked up 38 tackles for a loss during his Penn State career and helped the Nittany Lions finish 14th in total defense in 2015.
Named the third biggest “freak” in college football by Fox Sports last season, Zettel can throw a baseball 93 mph, drive a golf ball 300-plus yards and deliver a roundhouse kick that will knock your block off. His pure athleticism is astonishing, but Zettel’s strongest attributes are his relentless motor and blue-collar toughness—traits that were passed on to him by his late father, Terry.
STACK recently caught up with Zettel at EXOS San Diego to talk about his time at Penn State, his unique training and why his father remains his biggest role model.
STACK: Where did you grow up?
Anthony Zettel: I’m from West Branch, Michigan (population 2,098). Small country town. Lots of farmers, lots of blue-collar guys. It’s a hard-working community. We have a pretty big football culture. We’ve only won one state championship, but the town and the community really support the football team, even in a down year.
You’ve been a gym rat since your early teens. How did you develop your love of the weight room?
As a seventh and eighth grader, my middle school had a little program where we could leave after school to go to the high school and work out. So they had a good program for us, and it kind of introduced me to working out and lifting weights. Just getting everything down with the fundamentals of the Squat, the Bench, all that stuff I had down. So by the time I got to high school, I was more prepared and the transition was a lot easier.
Your athleticism in high school allowed you to play several positions, including running back. What was it like to be a 6-foot-5, 255-pound running back?
It was a great experience. My senior year I had a broken foot, which set me back, but when I got the ball I was still pretty productive. Who knows what I could’ve done without a broken foot, but at the same time, I had the opportunity with my speed and size and I took advantage of it. [Zettel totaled 26 carries for 205 rushing yards his senior year.]
When it came time to choose a school, why Penn State?
Just the guys in the locker room, the community, the down-to-earth people. That Penn State culture. When I got there and met a lot of the players, it came down to who I wanted to play football with and be around. And those guys in that locker room were really the right dudes for me. It just showed when the sanctions came out and everyone had the opportunity to leave, we stuck in there and the whole team basically stayed. So that just shows you the type of guys that were in that locker room.
You got involved with MMA training in college. How did that come about and how did it change your game on the football field?
About four years ago I got introduced to a guy named Bruce Lombard. He runs a little MMA/boxing gym in State College called LionHeart Fitness. So over the years I kind of took that up and would do extra workouts on top of my football workouts. I’d go there three or four times a week throughout the year, and I did it mostly in the Spring and Summer. That completely changed my game and hand-eye coordination. As a defensive lineman, you’re constantly having a hand battle with your opponent. So just getting that hand-eye coordination and knowing where you are in space and upping your awareness, it takes your game to another level. That’s really what it is, it’s a giant hand battle. If you have the advantage in that, you have a higher chance of winning the rep.
Do you have a go-to pass rush move?
My signature move is my spin move. I don’t like to do it a lot though. I like to set it up with swipes and rips and stuff. I don’t bring it out too much, but when I do it’s effective.
Did you have a favorite opponent during your time at Penn State?
Jack Allen, center from Michigan State. He’s a great guy, we’re friends off the field. But at the same time, he’s one of the toughest lineman I’ve ever gone against. He’s kind of a shorter center, so people say his measurables aren’t that great, but when you watch film on him you see an All-American. He’s a really great player. Going against him these past two years in the Big Ten was exciting and it was a great challenge.
You majored in kinesiology at Penn State. What attracted you to that field?
I just love the human body. I love how it works, the movement of the human body. So that’s kind of what I ended up getting drawn to, and Penn State’s Kinesiology program is very good, so it kind of all worked out for me.
How has your training been going this off-season?
Going from a college atmosphere and being around your friends, and maybe staying up too late, to getting the proper amount of sleep and filling up with all the right stuff, you just feel a different vibe from your body. It’s telling you you’re ready for anything and you see the improvements way faster than you would training in college.
What’s your greatest attribute as a player?
My motor. That’s my biggest strength. [Scouts] can just look at the film and see what I’ve done. I try to play to the whistle every time, even if I’m dead tired. I’m trying to give our team the best chance to win football games. A lot of people doubt me because of my size, my arm length, that sort of stuff. But when you get out on that field, it really comes down to who wants it more and who has the better skills. Who’s willing to go to the whistle? I feel that’s where I have my advantages.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve overcome in your football career to date?
The toughest thing was last year. I lost my father to cancer after a two-year battle last fall. That was the hardest thing. Going into my senior year of college and dealing with that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Do you model yourself after your father?
I’m an exact replica of him. What you see with me is what you see with him. He’s a hard worker, toughest guy I ever met. He shaped me, got me out of a small town and transformed me as a human being and helped me push through a lot of different things. He kept me focused and made me mentally tough. He taught me how to have a goal and how to reach. I owe it all to him. I wouldn’t be here without him.
What advice would you offer to high school athletes?
Set a goal and don’t deviate from that path. Put yourself around people that care about who you are. In the long run, I’m a football player, but that isn’t who I am as a person.
Does that advice stem from personal experience?
Yeah, everybody grows up with friends that don’t think logically. Friends that don’t think about their future and make bad decisions. You don’t want to put yourself around those people. My dad did a good job of telling me about these things and keeping me away from all that extra stuff. You’ve got to keep focused on the path you want to go down.