Shedding nickname, Sickels ready to seize opportunity

UNIVERSITY PARK — Garrett Sickels figured it was time to shed his nickname. And add some muscle at the same time.

The Penn State junior defensive end used to eat any and everything he wanted. And speaking recently, he said that he “left some stuff” on the field last season, when he was just a half-second away from being the disruptive force that oftentimes his teammates were.

After spring ball, Sickels knew it was time for a change.

New season. New approach. And new physical build.

“I used to call him skinny, mini-arms,” defensive line coach Sean Spencer said during media day earlier this month. “He had a big upper body, but little arms. Now, he’s transformed his body — his dedication to himself and eating right has changed his game.”

Spencer laughed a little when mentioning the nickname, but instantly turned serious and confident when describing Sickels’ transformation, one reason why he said there are high expectations for the New Jersey native this season.

The most experienced returning player along the defensive line, Sickels registered 35 tackles (13 solo, 22 assisted), five tackles for loss and three sacks last season. He also recovered two fumbles, all while starting 12 games.

Good numbers. Now time to elevate those stats, and maybe even earn a new nickname. The old one is definitely gone.

Sickels added 11 pounds of muscle and lost four pounds of fat, sticking to a lean diet comprised mostly of brown rice, eggs, green beans, chicken, steak and seafood. This last category was a result of Sickels spending time fishing along the New Jersey shoreline this summer and taking it easy on the weekends.

Sickels came into training camp noticeably different, with head coach James Franklin declaring during media day that Sickels, along with Evan Schwan, “made a really big jump this summer” and is ready to emerge as a leader.

There’s definitely an opportunity for him to step up.

The other three starters from last season’s defensive line are all now on NFL rosters (Austin Johnson, Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel). And before them, Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan starred for the Nittany Lions. So the idea of this season being a step back for the d-line would be reasonable. Almost expected.

But here’s what Sickels said motivates him going into the season.  

“Each year I’ve been here, they’ve talked about rebuilding the defensive line. What are you going to do with Deion gone? C.J. is gone. Zeller is gone.

“We have guys ready to play, and we have guys that made plays last year,” Sickels continued. “We’re ready to go this year, and we’re fired up about it.”

Then that word came up again: rebuilding, and whether or not that’s his viewpoint for the defensive line this season.

“Not at all,” Sickels said. “We don’t even use that word. It’s re-loading.”

Franklin said that last year, Sickels was a half-step away a lot of times from being the guy who got there first. Usually, it was someone else in that trio now playing in the pros.

They’re gone. Sickels is still here. And he’s ready for his chance.

“You’re so excited for your teammates, but you’re just thinking, ‘Wow, one half-second and that would have been my sack or my play,” he said. “I’m excited for those guys that have moved on and are doing great things in training camps in the NFL, but I’m very excited for the guys that we have.”

Sickels has a tremendous amount of respect for his former teammates. He spoke with Nassib during the offseason, adopting the diet that helped catapult the former walk-on into an All-American.

Sickels said he also looks up to Mike Hull and Brad Bars — two former Penn State standouts also in the NFL — saying they led by example, and that’s what he tries to do. His dad was his coach playing football growing up, and he told him to act like he’s been there before when making a big play.

Chances are good he’ll be there a lot this season.

So much so, that in a few years after he’s graduated, a future Penn State defensive lineman might be asked: “How do you replace the production left by Garrett Sickels?”

According to his line coach, that’s entirely possible.

“I tell you, he doesn’t say much, but he practices so hard,” Spencer said. “Coach Pry and I talk about the Mike Hulls of the world, and the way they practice when Mike Hull was here — Garrett practices like that.

“There’s no off speed or slow down for him. You want everybody to practice like that, but some guys do it better. I think that’s what gives him a chance to be great.”

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