There weren’t too many questions surrounding the Penn State defense coming into this season, but defensive tackle was one of them.
Replacing a guy like PJ Mustipher— a 6-foot-4, 318-pound presence and one of Penn State’s leaders– isn’t easy, and even with Mustipher in the fold last season, Penn State’s interior defensive line was called into question (i.e. Michigan 41, Penn State 17).
Mustipher’s departure (out of eligibility) opened the proverbial door for other PSU defensive tackles to shine, and so far, second-year player Zane Durant is running through that door.
Through four games, Durant’s Pro Football Focus grade is 81.6, which is the second-highest amongst Penn State’s defensive players. Now, PFF and its analytics aren’t gospel, and many take its ratings– and justifiably so– with a grain of salt. But nobody needed to see a rating Saturday to know that Durant was dominant against Northwestern. All they had to do was watch the game.
Durant had three tackles for loss, including a sack near the goal line, in Penn State’s 41-13 win at Northwestern. On a defense filled with future NFL players, Durant still managed to stick out, and his defensive coordinator is loving it.
“Zane is just wired in a certain way that our defense really kind of needed,” Manny Diaz told reporters via Zoom early Tuesday afternoon.
Diaz then mentioned “some of the big personalities” Penn State lost after last season. Although Diaz didn’t mention any names, Mustipher and safety Ji’Ayir Brown are two big names that come to mind.
For Diaz, Durant has the right mindset, and that’s part of why he’s playing a bigger part in 2023.
“Zane is sort of like-minded to those guys,” Diaz said. “So, I think as his role has increased in our defense, I think, in a way, his leadership increased in our defense, because he’s got that dog in him that makes other guys want to maybe take their game up to a little bit of a different level.”
Diaz isn’t the only coach Durant’s impressed.
The head coach loves him, too.
“I’ve been a big fan of Zane’s really since he arrived on campus,” James Franklin said in his post-Northwestern presser. “He’s approached it the right way. It’s not easy to play D-tackle as a true freshman and he was able to do that. I thought he had a chance to take a significant step this year and I think he’s doing that.”
Franklin knows Durant has to keep his momentum going, but right now, he likes what he sees.
“He’s a smart guy,” Franklin said, “he’s a consistent guy, he’s a disciplined guy. We talk about being high-production and low-maintenance — he’s that. I’m proud of him. His parents did a great job raising him.”