STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Garrett Sickels can smile about it all now -- but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten.
Penn State’s redshirt junior defensive end always seemed just a step behind his three teammates on the line last season, inches away from making a sack or stuffing the ball carrier.
Against Illinois, for example, he ran free inside on a third-quarter play, opened his arms and prepared to introduce Wes Lunt to the turf -- right up until NCAA sacks leader Carl Nassib blindsided the quarterback. Sickels just threw up his hands after the miss and then patted Nassib on the shoulder pads.
“He was laughing about that one,” Sickels said of Nassib. “He was like, ‘That one was bad, you were just tackling air.'"
Sickels laughed on a recent afternoon while describing that particular play -- maybe the most blatant miss of the season -- but he knows there’s a different dynamic in 2016. Last season, the New Jersey native played the role of greenhorn. He competed underneath the shadow of three all-conference linemen, all of whom were selected in April’s NFL draft.
Now, he’s the only returning starter from a defensive line that will long be remembered as one of the Nittany Lions’ best of the decade. He’s gone from student to mentor, from relative unknown to unit leader, in one short offseason.
“Everyone’s asking me about who’s new on the D-line that you’re excited to see,” linebacker Brandon Bell said, “but Garrett Sickels is one of the guys I’m most excited to watch play. He’s got a lot more to show; he’s one of the hardest workers on the team.”
Sickels finished fourth last season among Penn State linemen in tackles (35), tackles for loss (5) and sacks (3). He was often lost in the shuffle, with headlines praising the record-breaking Nassib and fans doting on the defensive tackle duo of Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t contribute.
“Did he affect the pocket? Did he do what he was supposed to do? A lot of times it was a yeah,” defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. “I know sacks are nice, but the guy does so many tremendous things. He gets there with such velocity and speed that, if it was one more step, he would’ve gotten there.”
During Penn State’s first practice, part of which was open to the media, Spencer yelled “Get off the ball!” at his linemen during position drills. Whenever Sickels crouched in his stance and Spencer shouted, Sickels was always one of the first defensive linemen to reach the target.
All that hasn’t been lost on Spencer, who swears he knew back when Sickels was a redshirt freshman that he’d be special. Ever since Sickels made his second career sack against Maryland, when he leaned back into the tackle and showed an uncanny bend, Spencer was convinced. He pushed Sickels as a result, playfully calling him “Skinny Minnie arms” until he bulked up.
Now, several players and coaches said, he’s considered one of the hardest workers in the weight room.
“Garrett’s had a monster summer,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “He’s one of our -- if not the -- hardest worker, which is a great quality to have. He’s a good leader in that room.”
Both Pry and Spencer echoed how Sickels always seemed to be “a step away” last season and Sickels was no different. He brought up the Illinois play several times, smiling and shaking his head. “One more second,” Sickels said. “One more half-second.”
“I felt like I kind of left some stuff on the field last year, and I don’t want to leave Penn State feeling that way,” Sickels continued.
There are no more shadows cast over Sickels. The spotlight’s on him this fall -- and he’s trying to make the most out of it. He’s gone over the playbook with younger defensive ends like Torrence Brown. He dropped nine pounds from last season while still adding muscle and speed. And he’s earned votes of confidence from his three former teammates now in the NFL.
“He learned from all of us last year,” said Zettel, now a Detroit Lion, “And I think he’s ready to take a step up this season.”
Added Johnson, of the Tennessee Titans: “Seeing how he’s changed his body and all that kind of stuff, I think he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.”