It would be hard to overstate the importance of Garrett Sickels to the Penn State football program over the past five years. The New Jersey product was one of the few top-level recruits, along with former Nittany Lion quarterback Christian Hackenberg, to choose and stick with Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, riding out another coaching change before helping lead PSU to last season’s Rose Bowl on the way to the NFL.
Sickels and fellow defensive end Evan Schwan could be the most difficult players to replace this year. Penn State is looking for the kind of pass rushing ability they showed in 2016. Sickels and Schwan combined for 12 sacks and 21 tackles for loss last season, meaning whoever takes their places on the defensive line will find it hard to replicate those stats.
The jobs could fall to Shareef Miller and Torrence Brown, who have impressed the Penn State coaching staff in the preseason.
“I think Shareef (Miller) is a guy who has a chance to have a breakout year and take that next step,” PSU head coach James Franklin told reporters at a practice earlier this month. “I think Torrence Brown has played a lot of football for us and is kind of the old wily vet and I think is going to be very productive for us.”
Both Miller and Brown played in every game last year, with Brown making four starts and Miller getting two sacks in a reserve role.
The inside of the defensive line is a different story, with PSU returning plenty of impact players from a year ago at defensive tackle. Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren are likely to start while setting an aggressive yet disciplined tone. Cothran had eight starts last season, making 4.5 tackles for loss. Cothren started all 13 games and recorded 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, good enough to earn an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection.
The defensive line may find depth thanks to Penn State’s continued successful recruiting efforts in the Washington D.C. area. One true freshman who looks more and more likely to play this season is Yetur Gross-Matos, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end who absolutely dominated at the high school level in Virginia last season.
Gross-Matos recorded 18.5 sacks as a senior at Chancellor High School. Franklin has pointed him out as a freshman who already looks like a veteran in practice despite no collegiate game experience.
With an inexperienced secondary behind them, the Nittany Lions will need big-time production out of their defensive linemen, but an area that once looked like a concern after losing Sickels and Schwan has the potential to be one of the bright spots on a defense that must live up to the standard of Penn State’s prolific offense.