Heading into the 2015 season, the buzz surrounding Carl Nassib began picking up steam as coaches and players were lining up to sing his praises. While it's easy to get excited about any trickle of information during the summer when everyone's record sits at 0-0, the general feeling was the Nassib would receive his due as a hard-working fifth-year senior but would eventually be surpassed up by younger players who were nipping at his heels on the depth chart. Once the season started, it became obvious that Nassib had developed into a disruptive force who would ultimately go on to lead the nation in sacks and forced fumbles on his way to the Lombardi Award.
Nassib's production will be nearly impossible to replicate, but could another defensive end come out of nowhere to make waves across the nation? While the position group is short on experience, there is plenty of potential to work with. Pair that with Penn State and Sean Spencer's penchant for producing elite defensive linemen and the relative unknowns mentioned below could make a big impact much sooner than expected.
Garrett Sickels is the sole returning starter at defensive end, after a solid redshirt sophomore campaign. It may seem as though Sickels has been at Penn State for quiet some time, as he entered the program alongside Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman, who have both moved on from the program after three seasons. It's been well-documented but should be noted again- Sickels had his choice of just about every major program in the nation, yet chose Penn State during the fallout of the Sandusky Scandal, and then re-affirmed his commitment following the NCAA sanctions in July of 2012. The New Jersey native simply bleeds blue and white.
Sickels took a redshirt season in 2013 and was a key reserve as a redshirt freshman before moving into a starting role in 2015. He produced an admirable season, contributing 35 tackles, including five behind the line of scrimmage, as well as three sacks, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Sickels was largely overshadowed by Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson during his first season as a full-time starter, but will be expected to become one of the key leaders on a relatively young defense and increase his numbers as an upperclassman. One of the primary areas where Sickels will be expected to improve is run support, as he has a tendency to find himself out of position. Additionally, the extra offseason should see gains in his power and explosiveness coming off the edge so that Penn State may continue to produce regular pressure with a four-man front.
If you're looking for a reason to get excited for the 2016 season, look no further than redshirt sophomore Torrence Brown. A key reserve, Brown played in all 13 games in 2015, registering 11 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. His redshirt freshman campaign was reminiscent of Zettel's time as a back-up in 2012 and 2013- he wasn't on the field terribly often, but when he was he certainly made his presence known.
Brown has incredible athleticism to pair with his 6'3'', 257 lb. frame could be a nightmare to contain. He has a fantastic first step and will provide valuable pressure off the edge. Don't be surprised if Brown is the team-leader in sacks by a wide margin by season's end, as well as finding him as an All-B1G performer. Brown seems destined to become the biggest breakout player on defense in 2016. With another offseason under Spencer's guidance, the sky is the limit.
Here's where things become a bit muddied. Evan Schwan will compete for a starting role as a senior, and at the very least will be a regular part of the rotation as the key reserve. Schwan has tremendous size at 6'6'' and 252 lbs. and has the potential to become a force in his final season as a Nittany Lion. As part of the two-deep in 2015, Schwan left his mark with 21 tackles, 0.5 TFLs and a fumble recovery, but did not register a sack in 12 games. Curtis Cothran, another key contributer to the two-deep in 2015, has been moved to defensive tackle to make up for the lack of depth on the inside. However, at 262 lbs. don't be surprised to see him line up across the line depending on the specific package. Kam Carter, a 305 lb. redshirt freshman, remains listed as a DE on the most recent depth chart (published on March 21) for some reason, but will play exclusively at DT moving forward. Fellow redshirt freshman Kevin Givens has officially made the transition to defensive tackle as well, and has reportedly turned in stellar performances during the spring session. Carter and Given's classmate Ryan Buchholz is also expected to focus on DT, although the roster has him remaining at DE, so like Cothran, could also ultimately wind up at either position.
True sophomore Colin Castagna is one to keep an eye on during the Blue-White Game. Castagna is raw, but has become a workout warrior during his time at Penn State and has developed into one of the better overall athletes on the defense. James Franklin gave him a shout-out at his pre-spring practice press conference, and he seems poised to be one of those players that comes out of nowhere for three sacks in the Blue-White Game to create buzz heading into the regular season. Shareef Miller is another intriguing prospect. The highly-recruited Miller put on some much-needed bulk during his redshirt season in 2015, and now checks in at 6'5", 248 lbs., a far cry from his 220 lb. frame when he initially committed to Penn State as a high school senior. While he may need another season to further develop his skillset, he has superb quickness to go along with his lanky frame that could make him into a dominant pass rusher during his time at Penn State.