For now, Nits' defensive line under the national radar

Posted: September 05, 2014

STATE COLLEGE - Ohio State's defensive line, now coached by former Penn State coach Larry Johnson, is stocked with future NFL talent.

Michigan State's stifling unit is headlined by preseason All-America defensive end Shilique Calhoun.

But after taking in the opening week of college football, the preseason talk of premier front fours might have unjustly left a Big Ten unit out of the conversation.

"I would say that people overlook us," Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson said. "We're going to shock some people because they overlook us. We're just going to have to wait and see until we play those teams."

A flustered starting quarterback, backpedaling offensive line and beaten down running back - Central Florida felt the full effects of one of the conference's most underrated defensive lines in Dublin last week.

A deep, high-motored defensive line can debilitate an offense's chances at sustained success. Penn State's front four - sometimes front five - did just that on Saturday and figure to play a major role yet again in the Nittany Lions' home opener against Akron this weekend.

"We played as a unit," senior defensive end Brad Bars said. And what a unit it could prove to be.

The line, which saw nine players contribute on Saturday, racked up 5.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery. Central Florida, normally a physical team up front, was blown off the ball on countless occasions and unable to establish the running game.

The likes of Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, with Philadelphia native Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan on the edge, helped limit Knights running back Dontravious Wilson to just 34 yards on 21 carries. Take Wilson's 16-yard scamper in the first quarter out of the equation, and he mustered just 18 yards on 20 touches.

Penn State's plan entering the game was pretty obvious.

"Stop the run first, then make the game one-dimensional," Johnson said.

Expect the same against the Zips.

Akron, coming off a 41-0 rout of FCS opponent Howard, is led by dual-threat quarterback Kyle Pohl. The 6-3 junior threw for 308 yards and four touchdowns in the opener, while also leading the team in rushing yards with 48.

The Lions' depth in the trenches should keep players fresh and help bottle up Pohl.

Outside of Penn State's starting line, Lions coach James Franklin said in his weekly news conference that he thought defensive end Carl Nassib, a Malvern Prep product and West Chester native, did well to defend the run and pressure the passer against Central Florida. Franklin also said he'd like to utilize guys like defensive end Parker Cothren and defensive tackle Tarow Barney against Akron to relieve some pressure on the starters.

That freedom to interchange defensive linemen and avoid a drop in production wasn't only noticed by Franklin and his players.

Akron coach Terry Bowden took note, as well.

In his weekly teleconference, Bowden, former Auburn head coach and son of legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, marveled at Penn State's physicality at the line of scrimmage.

Penn State's defensive line might seem to be overlooked on a national scope, but Bowden knows what his Zips are getting into.

"I would say they are licking their chops this week just because of their talent," Bowden said. "The talent level Penn State has against what we've got . . . They look to be one of the better defensive lines I've seen in Division I."

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