By: Thomas Frank Carr
After missing the first four games of last year, Penn State defensive tackle Curtis Cothran returned during the Minnesota game and made exactly one standout play. On a 3rd and seven, Cothran flashed through the middle of the Gophers line and hit quarterback Mitch Leidner square under the chin, forcing an incomplete pass. The shot, deemed to be targeting, cost Cothran the rest of the game and part of the next one. It also served as a harbinger of things to come for the redshirt junior defensive end making a switch to tackle.
The Alabama native continued to show that explosiveness throughout the season and began to gain more playing time. His high water mark, and the sign of Cothran’s potential, came in the Big 10 Championship game where three of his five tackles were for a loss.
“I just love his twitch off the ball,” said defensive line coach Sean Spencer after practice this week. Now with a year at defensive tackle, Spencer sees growth for the former defensive end,
“He’s grown to 290 pounds. He was probably in the mid 80’s last year. I’ll say this about him, there was a position change. He went from being a defensive end to a defensive tackle. Playing a position, and being actually moved to the position are two different things. Now with being a year in the program at that position is going to help him out.”
With a year to grow into his 6’5” frame, Cothran has the potential to be a game wrecker on the inside. His twitch, length and added strength make him the most complete defensive tackle in the Nittany Lion’s deep rotation.
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How deep is that rotation along the defensive line?
“Anywhere between 9 and 10. We have a lot of guys can play. You want to put them in the right situation. Certain guys are better against the run, against the pass, it’s my job to make sure they’re put in the right position.”
Spencer is known for his high energy approach to coaching, which he expects from his defensive line. ‘Coach Chaos’ has employed some tactics to keep the attention of his charges throughout the long slog of camp,
“Today, we watched film on John Randal for 15 minutes. Just a guy who played the game at a high level. Yesterday I gave them a lesson on the poem Invictus. I ‘m just trying to do everything I can to keep them engaged, and not just on football, just on a whole. I think it’s our job as educators to show them more than football.”
Why Randall? He’s the embodiment of what Spencer wants to see from his players,
“I love that guy, he played like a maniac. I want my guys to play like that, with that relentless attitude and effort. You know he was undrafted, small college guy, who came into the fold in the NFL and he played the game the way I want my D-tackles to play.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Randal was considered small for a defensive tackle. At 6’1”and roughly 290 pounds, Randal resembles many of the Penn State defensive tackles. In fact, only two Nittany Lions that play defensive tackle cross the 300-plus pounds threshold. Weight however, doesn’t matter as much to Spencer as good technique,
“It just depends. If the kid can play strong, weight, I don’t know if it’s a factor. I want a kid who can play with great leverage and hold his position, and if he can’t do that, clearly it’s less about weight and more about technique.”
If Spencer can get John Randal-like production out of his defensive line, the Nittany Lions will be in very good shape on defense for 2017.