PSU’s Sickels Reaps Rewards Of Strong Spring

The redshirt sophomore’s improvement will help mitigate the early departure of a starting D-end.

Time was winding down in the first half of Penn State's Blue-White Game last month, when a member of the team's support staff walked up to defensive end Garrett Sickels.

“Hey, meet me in the end zone,” Sickels was told.

“I was like, 'What's going on here, am I in trouble or something?' ” Sickels recalled.

Hardly. The 6-foot-4, 262-pound redshirt sophomore defensive end entered spring practice as something of a question mark. He completed the sessions by being named the most improved defender in the program, and as such was presented with the Jim O'Hora Award.

He joins an impressive list of O'Hora winners that in the last decade have included future All-Big Ten picks such as Anthony Zettel, Jordan Hill and Michael Mauti.

In retrospect, Sickels should have seen it coming. He explained that defensive line coach Sean Spencer “is hard on me, but that's what you need.” However, a few days before the Blue-White Game, Spencer texted the D-end in a much different tone.

“I'm proud of you,” the message said.

“I just didn't think anything of it,” Sickels said. “I went out there every day in the spring and just did my job.”

He admits that an earlier text from Spencer -- back in December -- helped spark his off-season improvement. Sickels had a solid redshirt freshman season, playing in every game (but never starting) and registering 13 tackles, three tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.

But 2014 was the last season of eligibility for one starting end -- C.J. Olaniyan. And shortly after the Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College, the other starter -- Deion Barnes -- surprisingly announced he was giving up his final year of eligibility to enter the 2015 NFL Draft.

That did not work out so well for Barnes, who was not drafted. Regardless, it presented an opportunity for Sickels.

“You never know when your number's gonna get called to step up,” Sickels said. “Spence called in the off-season when Deion made it public, so I was like, 'All right. This is the time to go out there and play ball and do what I do best.' ”

Ever since, the coaching staff has been raving about Sickels' play. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop credited him with having an “excellent spring.” Head coach James Franklin frequently praised the improvement of Sickels and fellow end Carl Nassib, who both appeared to hammer down starting jobs in the spring (playing outside returning starting tackles Zettel and Austin Johnson).

As important as the positive reviews from the staff have been, Sickels said he had an even greater impetus to improve.

“I had a little bit of extra motivation in the off-season, but not really just for (myself),” he said. “It's like, OK, I have to show Austin I can play, I have to show Carl I can play, I have to show Zettel I can be a starter. It was really just showing them what I could do. So it's definitely been a good off-season.”

Even after losing two starters up front, Shoop believes a defensive line that was among the best in the nation last year has a chance to be even better this fall. The reason? More depth.

To Sickels, camaraderie plays into that equation, as well.

“How close we are is definitely going to carry over on to the (field),” he said. “We depend on people and everyone will have your back, especially the D-line positions.”

Sickels came into the program with defensive end Curtis Cothran and defensive tackle Parker Cothren. He is one year behind end Evan Schwan and a year ahead of yet another end, Torrence Brown.

“There's definitely competition,” Sickels said. “When we go on the field … we're competing for spots and then we have to solidify spots and stuff like that. It's game on. But at the same time, when they make a great play, it's a great play.

“I have a few buddies at different schools, and they're saying guys (competing for jobs) don't talk to each other,” he added. “But with us … it's really genuine. What we have going with the D-line is special.”

And for one of them, at least, award-worthy.

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