What do you call a highly touted recruit who excelled early in small doses as a rotation player in a deep defensive end group, and is poised to take a huge step forward in as he finds himself thrust into the starting lineup?
Well, a year ago, you might have called that Anthony Zettel. But keep that promising young lineman at end, fast forward to 2015, and it's Garrett Sickels who's ready to break out in a big way.
The graduation of C.J. Olaniyan and the surprising decision by Deion Barnes to declare for the draft a year early left Penn State as raw and uncertain at defensive end as they are experienced and decorated at defensive tackle. That's the bad news, as Sean Spencer breaks in a new pair of starters. But given just how good Zettel and Austin Johnson are, and how much attention they'll merit from opposing coaches, there's a tremendous opportunity for anyone able to step up and grasp it. And all offseason, it's seemed like Sickels will be the one to do exactly that.
It's one thing for Sickels to be a presumptive starter: the only other options are Evan Schwan, Carl Nassib, Curtis Cothran, and a whole mess of true freshman. It's another for Sickels to have turned heads like he did, winning the Jim O'Hora award this Blue-White Weekend as the most improved and dedicated player on the defense. And that's typically portended big things for its recipient: the most recent winners are Anthony Zettel, Jordan Lucas, C.J. Olaniyan, Stephon Morris, and Jordan Hill--who not only excelled on the field, but took leadership positions off of it.
Sickels didn't see the field as much as he might've liked last year, but he made the most of his playing time, which increased as the season went on; Sickels racked up 11 tackles, 3 TFL, and 2 sacks, tying him with a host of others for the fourth-most sacks on the team. Those numbers that might remind one of Anthony Zettel's freshman campaign, which ended with 15 tackles, 4 TFL, and 4 sacks. Sure, Sickels might be a step behind, but being almost as good as Anthony Zettel means being a really freaking good football player. And Sickels has shown glimpses: he truly excelled in the Maryland game, with 3 tackles, 2 for a loss, and one sack in that game we should otherwise forget even happened.
Point is, all the early success is unsurprising for the defensive cornerstone of the recruiting class that also brought Penn State Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman. That offensive firepower led to Sickels being overlooked a bit, but he was an Army All-American, a borderline top-100 recruit, and he only filled out his frame during that redshirt year. At 6'4, 258 he's got the size to set the edge, and his speed and motor should help him get around it. Ten TFL and a half-dozen sacks might be a conservative estimate for Sickels' 2015 numbers.
True, any defensive end would be poised to succeed when opposing offensive lines have to double-team both Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson, lest their quarterback end up like this. But freeing up rushing lanes and pushing single-teams towards someone as talented as Garett Sickels might be just as dangerous.
And it's why Sickels is going to break out in a big way as a redshirt sophomore in 2015.