STATE COLLEGE - Leave it to the media to deliver the news.
It hadn't been an hour since Penn State football coach James Franklin told reporters assembled at last week's media day that defensive ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan were as good of a one-two punch as any in the Big Ten.
Heady stuff, no doubt. But Franklin apparently never told his players.
"You just told me," said Barnes during his own interview session. "That shows he has respect for us, but as a unit we can all do something special if we work hard."
Franklin should have good reason to think well of his defensive ends, and his front four in general. Along with the offensive backfield, the Nittany Lion defensive line is as experienced and accomplished as any unit on the team.
Barnes, the 2012 Big Ten defensive freshman of the year before a dropoff last season, had such a productive offseason that he won the Frank Patrick total commitment award in the spring. He improved from 26 to 28 tackles in 2013, but his sack totals dropped from 6 to 2 and his tackles for a loss dwindled from 10 to 4.
He'd like a better 2014, but wasn't declaring any specific benchmarks as fall practice began.
"It's about becoming a better teammate, making my unit better, communicate better, areas where I lack," said Barnes. "You never know what you can do. I obviously have a bar I want to reach, but if it happens, it happens. I'm out there having fun."
Like Barnes who is listed at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, Olaniyan is also on the small side for his position at 6-3, 252. But Olaniyan, too, has been a playmaker in the past. His 8 tackles and 2 sacks were critical in the Nittany Lions' quadruple overtime victory last year vs. Michigan, and he also intercepted a pass against Wisconsin.
His stats have improved each season, including a breakout season last year when he finished with 50 tackles, 5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles en route to becoming an All-Big Ten honorable mention. He credited much of that to having a daughter last year, but also being too quick and rangy for some of the Big Ten's bigger offensive linemen.
"I know what I bring to the table and what they do, too," said Olaniyan. "Once you get on the field, size doesn't matter. It's how bad you want it."
Both Barnes and Olaniyan, as well as likely starting defensive tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, had spent their entire careers with Larry Johnson as their position coach. But with Johnson moving on to Ohio State and Sean Spencer taking over under Franklin and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, that constant change from recent years has also hit the front four.
"The transition wasn't hard, and it happened before," said Olaniyan, referring to Bill O'Brien replacing Joe Paterno and Tom Bradley. "Now, I'm speaking for myself, but it's mostly just business. The new staff has love and energy, but at the end of the day you have to play football. Each day we build our relationship and it hasn't been hard. This staff is great."
Change also came this offseason to Zettel, who moved inside from defensive end where he could expect to line up next to Johnson, the biggest defensive lineman on the team at 6-4, 313. Zettel, at 6-4, 274, might be sized more like a defensive end, but he'd called himself a defensive end in a defensive tackle's body before and expected a position change eventually. He is also listed 24 pounds heavier than 2013.
Zettel finished second on the team last year with 4 sacks and 6 tackles for a loss, with more than one-third of his tackles coming from behind the line of scrimmage. Like Barnes and Olaniyan, he considers himself a defensive playmaker but at a position more known for brute strength.
"You can be 330 and not move, but all that does is get you blocked," said Zettel. "Being quick, with sudden stops, he can't get his hands on you. I'm one of the strongest guys on the team, so I feel I have the strength aspect. Double-teams are hard on anyone, but I'm light. If I stay at pad level, I have the advantage."
Franklin also touted Brad Bars, Carl Nassib, and Garrett Sickels at media day for their depth at defensive end, but noted Johnson and Zettel need help behind them. One intriguing option is Tarow Barney, the rare junior college transfer to Penn State who tied for the team lead at Lift 4 Life with 29 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press. At 6-1 and 289, he could provide some extra strength and bulk. Incoming freshman Antoine White, from the same Millville (NJ) High School as Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, could be another option.
But it's Zettel's options that could be as interesting as any. Shoop, who said he'll coach games from the press box, said that versatility and playmaking ability fits his schemes.
"We'll take an undersized guy at that particular position as long as he's got what we call 'twitch' movement," said Shoop. "We do so many different things, we're not going to be static in our alignment a lot. We'll do a lot of movement and Anthony provides a lot of what we're looking for.
"He's got a great get-off and movement and tenacity and it allows us to really put our best players on the field," said Shoop. "I did more offseason stuff this year with him and C.J. and defensive end than I've ever done before."