Key Departures: C.J. Olaniyan, Deion Barnes, Brad Bars
The time has finally come to bid farewell to longtime starters Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan, who have been stalwarts of the defensive line since 2012. Barnes was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year during the 2012 campaign as he racked up six sacks and constantly applied pressure while fighting through regular double teams. He had a bit of a renaissance season in 2014 after seeing his production dip in 2013 and seemed to be on track for a monster senior year that would help move him up the draft charts. However, Barnes decided to forgo his final year of eligibility, which seemed to be a head-scratching move considering he was not invited to the NFL Combine and his draft status remains largely uncertain. Olaniyan did not receive the same amount of attention as Barnes, but was an extremely steady presence during his time at Penn State. His ability to support the run and rush the quarterback gave Penn State a versatile every-down presence which will be difficult to replace. Barnes and Olaniyan combined for 87 tackles, nine sacks, 18 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles while helping lead one of the best defenses in the nation in 2014.
Likely Starters: Garrett Sickels and Carl Nassib
Because of a lack of returning experience, the term "likely starters" should be used very loosely at defensive end. Whether or not redshirt sophomore Garrett Sickels and redshirt senior Carl Nassib become regular starters, they will both be key components of the defensive line. Both performed admirably as part of the second unit of the defensive line, which did not exhibit much of a dropoff from the first team unit in 2014. Nassib finished his junior campaign with 7 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss to go along with a sack and a forced fumble, with Sickels adding 11 tackles, three stops behind the line of scrimmage as well as three sacks during his redshirt freshman season.
As a fifth-year senior, Nassib will be counted on as a leader of a general young and inexperienced unit. He is far from flashy, but demonstrates excellent technique and could make a big leap as a senior. Nassib is likely to be listed as a starter heading into week one and will need to remain his productivity to fend off some of the younger player nipping at his heels. Offensive tackle Andrew Nelson recently had very high praise for Nassib during spring practice, which suggests he may become a force as a full-time starter. Nassib could also slide into the interior in certain packages.
Sickels enters his sophomore season with plenty of promise and high expectations. If you recall from his recruiting cycle, Sickels was part of the class that committed to Penn State following the Sandusky scandal reaffirmed his commitment after the announcement of the sanctions. Sickels had his choice of just about any college football powerhouse, but like classmates Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman, wanted to help build a new era of Penn State football. Among Sickels greatest strengths is his speed off the edge and should develop into a tremendous pass rusher this season.
Primary Backups: Evan Schwan, Torrence Brown, Curtis Cothran
Due to a lack of returning depth at defensive end, Schwan, Brown and Cothran should each see plenty of playing time this fall. Schwan has the most experience of the three, registering six tackles as a redshirt freshman. Along with Brown, I recently listed Schwan as one of the players primed for a breakout season in 2015. Schwan looks to be a diamond in the rough as he had many potential suitors disappear following a severe injury during his junior season in high school. However, Penn State stuck with him during the difficult times before he bounced back with a vengeance, collecting 17 sacks as a senior at Central Dauphin. Schwan has spent time bulking up, and at 6'6", 258 lbs. he could be a force to be reckoned with heading into his sophomore campaign.
Cothran has done little during his time at Penn State, playing primarily on special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2014 and was credited with one tackle and one tackle for a loss. Cothran has excellent size at 6'5" and 258 lbs. and will be a player to keep an eye on during the Blue-White Game to get a gauge on how much he will contribute in the fall.
Don't be surprised if Brown finds his way into the starting lineup at some point in 2015. At 6'3" and 256 lbs., Brown lacks the height of some of his positionmates but makes up for it with a tremendous burst and a non-stop motor. He reportedly looked very impressive on the scout team during his redshirt season and might be ready to burst onto the scene during his first year of eligibility. Brown has the type of raw athleticism that has probably made defensive coordinator Bob Shoop drool on multiple occasions. He was classified as an Athlete by most recruiting services because of his ability to contribute in a variety of roles. Brown has the type of speed that would be the envy of many wide receivers and with a vertical leap of 35 inches, possesses the athleticism that will allow him to terrorize Big Ten quarterbacks for years to come.