Penn State Nittany Lions: Garrett Sickels

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The past few years have brought historic changes at Penn State, from the men occupying the head coach's office to the names occupying the backs of the Nittany Lions' jerseys.

Yet until recently, Penn State's defensive line meeting room resisted renovation. It was one of few elements of the program that, in 2013, looked much like it did in 2005. Larry Johnson coached the group, as he had every season since 2000 (and, in some form, since 1996). And while the Lions' defense struggled for much of last season, the line still produced a first-team All-Big Ten performer, tackle DaQuan Jones, just as it did the previous five years.

[+] EnlargeSean Spencer
MCT via Getty ImagesNew defensive line coach Sean Spencer wants his guys attacking like 'wild dogs.'
But even the PSU defensive line couldn't evade the winds of change forever. After being passed over for Penn State's head-coaching job for the second time, Johnson in January declined a chance to remain with James Franklin's staff. Days later, he latched on at rival Ohio State.

Lions defensive linemen now take direction from a man known as Coach Chaos. You'll be able to hear Sean Spencer's voice from Row 80 of Beaver Stadium -- on game days. Spencer wants his Lions to be wild dogs, explaining, "The wild dog is the most efficient animal in the jungle in terms of hunting in a pack."

The 43-year-old dynamo with the "spastic" personality differs from that of his reserved, buttoned-down Penn State predecessor. But when it comes to standards, Spencer and Johnson are aligned.

"Traditionally, the D-line here has always been one of the elite in the country," Spencer told ESPN.com. "I know no other way but to have them rise to the expectations that I set forth and that they set forth for themselves. There's no excuse.

"I don't care who I've got out there. I expect to be dominant."

Spencer's message resonates with a group that, unlike others on a reduced roster, doesn't face dire depth challenges. The Lions return both starters at end -- Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan -- and veteran reserve Brad Bars, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Sophomore Austin Johnson moves into the lead tackle position and Anthony Zettel, a converted defensive end, has been a good fit at the 3-technique tackle spot.

"The D-line is probably our strength," Franklin said. "We have the most depth at that position. We've got about four deep at defensive end and probably two-and-a-half deep at D-tackle."

If the depth holds up, it will help Penn State use a larger rotation that Johnson typically used. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said the Vanderbilt linemen he and Spencer coached last fall didn't average more than 40 snaps a game.

The coaches want to use five or six defensive ends, as Bars, junior Carl Nassib and redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels also are in the mix. A healthy rotation suits Spencer's wild dogs philosophy.

At Vanderbilt, he commissioned a painting of a Commodores football player blended with a dog, which he displayed in his office at Penn State this spring. He also took a giant dog bone to the field.

"Part of their survival is when they chase their prey down, for three to five miles they take turns biting at him," Spencer said. "One goes to the front, and when he gets tired, the next one comes. It's a really unique strategy in terms of the way they attack things. We rotate a lot of guys, so we just take turns nipping at quarterbacks and making plays in the backfield."

Vanderbilt recorded 28 sacks last season, which tied for fourth in the SEC. Spencer estimates 24 came solely from line pressure. He expects the same production at Penn State.

Defensive tackle has been Penn State's strongest position in recent seasons with players such as Jones, Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Jared Odrick. Although Zettel and Johnson aren't known outside Happy Valley, the coaches think that soon will change.

"Zettel has been been very, very disruptive this spring," Shoop said. "Austin Johnson falls in line of the beast D-tackles Penn State's had in the past. He's over 300 pounds, moves well, he's tough to move at the point of attack, got a big butt and legs."

Olaniyan led Penn State with five sacks last season, his first as a starter. Penn State looks for more from Barnes, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year whose sacks and tackles for loss totals dropped by more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2013.

"What we're looking at is, how can we get him back to that?" Spencer said.

Spencer is pleased with Barnes' football knowledge and said all the linemen are asking "200- and 300-level questions" in meetings. Life without Johnson undoubtedly caused an adjustment -- "It's always tough to see somebody you call a family member leave," Olaniyan said -- but players quickly connected with Spencer, who lists relationship-building among his strengths.

"I grew up without a dad," said Spencer, whose father played for Michigan State in the 1960s. "Unfortunately, we don't have a relationship right now, and he's still alive. It's one of the things I'm least proud of, but at the same time, it made me who I am today. It made me have the ability to reach out to kids that probably are similar to me. I'm a little younger than Larry so they're not going to look at me as a dad, so to speak. They look at me as a big brother or an uncle.

"I think we've got some similarities in the way we care about our players, but I'm probably a little bit wilder than he is."

A little wilder and a little louder, but just as demanding.

"They both have the same philosophy as far as they want you to do everything perfect," Olaniyan said. "It's easy to embrace the new coaches when they have the same goal. We take pride as the Penn State D-line.

"Each game, we want everybody to see us as one of the best defensive lines out there. We want to be great."

At Penn State, some things never change.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We're nearing the end of this week's countdown, which involves ranking Penn State's most impactful recruiting classes of the past decade.

Up next is a class you should be very familiar with ...

No. 2 most impactful class: Class of 2013

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg's commitment ensured there would be little drop-off in PSU recruiting despite the heavy sanctions.
Top prospects: QB Christian Hackenberg, TE Adam Breneman, OG Brendan Mahon, OT Andrew Nelson, WR DaeSean Hamilton, DE Garrett Sickels, WR Richy Anderson, LB Brandon Bell

Biggest surprise: Bell. He made a lot of strides as a freshman and even made a start toward the end of the season. Bill O’Brien plugged him in for nine games in 2013, and Bell played a lot in the last three. He made 15 tackles in his final three contests -- 24 total on the year -- and even forced a fumble against Nebraska. He should end up starting the next three seasons.

Impact player: Hackenberg. Does this choice really need to be explained? He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, one of the better quarterbacks in the conference, and he took off running after enrolling over the summer. Penn State doesn’t often start true freshmen in season openers, but Hackenberg surpassed Tyler Ferguson pretty quickly with a calm demeanor and a penchant for learning a lot in a short time. Hackenberg could end up being Penn State’s best quarterback since Kerry Collins.

Why this class is important: This countdown isn’t just a list of the classes with the best prospects; it’s the most impactful. And when sanctions hit and the nation wondered whether Penn State would suffer a fate worse than death, top prospects such as Hackenberg and Breneman took center stage and showed that the university still could reel in the best of the best -- instead of simply settling for MAC-level recruits, as some predicted.

This class might not produce as many All-Big Ten players as the 2006 group. It might not even end up with an All-American. But this class is so important, and impactful, because of what it symbolized at the time. Happy Valley was still a destination, in part, because of the big names in this class. They offered fans hope. And they helped keep Penn State together while having a profound, ancillary effect in other areas.

You think Penn State reels in arguably the best 2014 class of receivers without Hackenberg? No chance. You can measure impact different ways, and this recruiting class is undoubtedly one of the most important in Penn State history.

More impactful recruiting classes:

No. 5: Class of 2011
No. 4: Class of 2004
No. 3: Class of 2006
Here's a compilation of Twitter reaction from current players, former players and recruits regarding Bill O'Brien's decision to coach the Houston Texans:


As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Defensive ends.

[+] EnlargeDeion Barnes
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Deion Barnes is primed for a big season.
Projected starters: Deion Barnes (2012 stats: 26 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles) and C.J. Olaniyan (2012 stats: 15 tackles, one sack, one start).

Key losses: Sean Stanley (2012 stats: 35 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) and Pete Massaro (2012 stats: eight tackles, one tackle for loss, five starts).

Next in line: Anthony Zettel will see increased time this season as the top backup in the rotation. He's slightly bigger than Olaniyan (6-4, 258 compared to 6-3, 244) and he finished third on the team in sacks last fall with four.

DE Brad Bars is lost for the season, so that means defensive coordinator John Butler will have to turn to some more inexperienced players to back up those three. Evan Schwan is at the top of the list after redshirting last season, and true freshman Garrett Sickels could also compete for immediate playing time. Sickels was the top defensive recruit of the 2013 class and is already more physically imposing than Schwan.

What to expect: These defensive ends should have no problems with the pass rush. DL coach Larry Johnson has routinely put together lines that finish in the Top 25 in sacks, and both ends are quick, athletic players. Barnes was named Big Ten freshman of the year, and Olaniyan will bat down his fair share of passes this season.

PSU finished 15th in the nation in sacks (34) in 2012, and that number should be pretty similar this season. Barnes should even increase his numbers a bit. That being said, the pass rush is clearly the ends' forte here. Barnes worked on developing his run-stopping skills this offseason because he admitted that was one part of his game that needs to get better.

Last season, the ends struggled at times with keeping runs to the outside bottled up. Still, PSU's run defense wasn't a consistent issue last year -- and it shouldn't be a big one for the ends this year. Run defense just doesn't appear to be as big of a strength as the pass rush.

Recruiting trail: Penn State brought in two defensive ends -- Sickels and Curtis Cothran -- in the 2013 class, so it's not expected to take any in this 2014 class. The 2015 class, however, is another story.

Darius Fullwood (Olney, Md./Good Counsel) impressed the staff during a June camp and already has a PSU offer next to his name. O'Brien spoke to the defensive end on June 8 and already told him the staff could foresee him playing early at PSU. He's No. 225 on the ESPN Junior 300, and he'll be one player the staff keeps a close eye on.

Best-case scenario: Barnes posts Aaron Maybin-like numbers and gains national recognition after a strong rookie debut, while Olaniyan proves he's slightly better than the Massaro-Stanley combination from a year ago.

Worst-case scenario: Injuries plague the line, and Schwan or Sickels are forced to see more action than they usually would. The rush defense becomes the biggest issue of the front seven, and that throws the entire defense off kilter.

Top position question: How good can Barnes be? Well, after just one season, it's pretty clear Barnes has a future in the NFL. He's one of the top overall players on this team, and it's scary to think he has three seasons left.

His parents said, prior to last season, he aimed for 13 sacks. "And when he didn't get that, he was disappointed," his mother said. And reaching double-digit sacks this season is a possibility.

But let's get right to the heart of the question. Barnes has the ability to go down as one of PSU's best pass-rushers of the 2000s. And, if he does reach 10 sacks this season, the record-breaking chatter will undoubtedly start. Courtney Brown holds the school record with 33 sacks; Barnes will need to average nine sacks over the next three seasons -- if he doesn't declare early for the NFL draft -- to tie that record. It's possible.

After all, by Barnes' count, he should've had 10 sacks last year anyway. Regardless of the numbers he winds up with, he's arguably the top pass-rusher in the conference already. And he'll only get better.

Mailbag: DE Bars, run-ons & scheduling 

July, 19, 2013
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Welcome to NittanyNation's mailbag! We asked you to tweet or email your questions, and we've selected three to answer in-depth this week.

Jim Murphy writes: How will Brad Bars' injury impact depth for the Lions this season? Was he poised for significant playing time?

Josh Moyer: He had high expectations back in February. I last talked to a smiling Bars during Thon weekend, when he volunteered to show host families around the football building. He said this at the time: "I feel like this is the season I'm going to take my game to another level. My expectations have risen a lot. ... I expect to be a key player on the team this year."

5 Questions: DT Parker Cothren 

June, 21, 2013
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Every week, NittanyNation will pose five questions to a recruit, player, alum or coach about all things Penn State.

This week's subject is incoming freshman DT Parker Cothren, who'll arrive on campus today. He'll be driving from Hazel Green, Ala., and he remained committed to PSU despite late offers from the likes of Auburn, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. He'll be roommates with defensive end Garrett Sickels.


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Incoming preferred walk-on Chris Gulla (Toms River, N.J./Toms River North) will compete for the starting job at kicker once he gets on campus over the summer.

He has a strong chance to start sometime during his career. So NittanyNation recently spoke to him about his chances this season, his thoughts on PSU and what fans can expect from him.

NittanyNation: You'll arrive at Penn State on June 22, and the first game is about two months later. I know you want to start, but that's still a quick turnaround. How do you like your chances, and how disappointed would you be if you were relegated to backup?


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How '13 commits want to be remembered 

February, 7, 2013
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Now that Penn State's Class of 2013 is officially in the books, we decided to ask the commits about their future with the Nittany Lions.

NittanyNation posed the same question to everyone: How do you think -- or hope -- your class will be remembered in four or five years?

Here's what they had to say:


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NittanyNation signing day recap

February, 6, 2013
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Signing day has gone smoothly in Happy Valley.

Here's a recap of how the letters of intent came in and how the class came together in Penn State's Class of 2013.

Follow the live blog after the jump.

(Read full post)

Overview of Penn State's Class of 2013 

February, 6, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With Penn State's fax machine whirring early Wednesday morning, NittanyNation takes an overall look at the expected recruiting class.

From top players to sleepers, misses and everything in-between, there's a lot going on in this class:

Who they got: Penn State looks as if it will sign 17 players this class, including the five who have already enrolled. The headliners are ESPN's No. 1 QB in Christian Hackenberg and No. 1 TE in Adam Breneman, who have helped bring the same kind of excitement to this class as Derrick Williams and Justin King in 2005. Penn State turned in a quality offensive group, with four-star prospects also at offensive guard (Brendan Mahon), offensive tackle (Andrew Nelson) and wideout (DaeSean Hamilton).

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Polling the commits: Why choose PSU? 

February, 6, 2013
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Christian HackenbergMiller Safrit/ESPN.comThe nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, felt a special bond with Penn State. Sixteen other prospects have also made that bond with the Nittany Lions.
Penn State's Class of 2013 ranks among the top 25 in the nation, and it's been one of the more surprising stories of the recruiting season. These prospects could've gone elsewhere -- some could've attended anywhere -- but they stuck with the Nittany Lions.

They'll officially become part of Penn State today. So, we asked them, why did you want to commit Penn State? Here's what they had to say this week:

  • QB Christian Hackenberg, Fork Union, Va./Fork Union, four stars, No. 15 in ESPN 150: "You know, I just got this gut feeling that it was home for me. Everything fell in line for me moreso than the other schools. I liked a lot of other schools, but I loved Penn State."


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Lions spotlight: DE Garrett Sickels 

January, 28, 2013
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Every weekday until signing day, NittanyNation will break down a commitment from Penn State’s 2013 recruiting class.

Vitals: Defensive end Garrett Sickels, Little Silver, N.J./Red Bank Regional, 6-foot-4, 225 pounds.

Committed: March 4, 2012.

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Signing day primer: Penn State 

January, 23, 2013
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With two weeks left until signing day, NittanyNation takes a closer look at what fans should know about the state of the class and this Penn State team.

Team needs: Defensive coordinator John Butler made it clear he wasn't happy with the secondary's depth last season. At cornerback, untested true freshman Da'Quan Davis was the backup, and the safeties opened the year as the team's weakness.

That's not the only concern. With Matt McGloin's departure, Steven Bench is now the most experienced quarterback on the team. And he threw just eight passes last season. Linebacker is also a position that could use a few extra bodies, especially with Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges making a run at the NFL.

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Several PSU commits gear up for visits 

January, 17, 2013
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Several Penn State commits plan to make trips this weekend to Happy Valley -- including one pledge who has never stepped foot in Pennsylvania.


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U.S. Army Bowl: Monday notebook 

December, 31, 2012
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SAN ANTONIO -- ESPN 150 outside linebacker Mike Mitchell (Plano, Texas/Prestonwood Christian) isn’t big on speaking publicly. He’d rather let his game do the talking -- and it speaks volumes.

On Monday, the 6-foot-5, 222-pound linebacker officially confirmed that he will announce his college plans during Saturday’s U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Oregon, Texas A&M and Ohio State are his three finalists.


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