He had shown up at Penn State’s Lasch Building headquarters not knowing what to expect.
Garrett Sickels had already committed to play for Bill O’Brien and the Nittany Lions, but he made the trip from New Jersey in late July of 2012 to figure out his future.
Just five days earlier, the NCAA had announced that if he did sign with the Lions, Sickels and his fellow recruits wouldn’t be playing in any bowl games.
But sign he did. Four-and-a-half years later, the defensive end leaves Happy Valley with a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth under his belt.
Sickels said Wednesday evening that he would be foregoing his fifth and final season with the Lions to enter the NFL draft.
“I take great pride in knowing me and my fellow classmates of the 2013 recruiting class have left Penn state in a much greater place than when we arrived,” Sickels wrote in an open letter.
“This was not an easy decision by any means, but I am excited for the next chapter.”
Sickels becomes the Lions’ first underclassman to leave early this offseason. Tight end Mike Gesicki and linebacker Jason Cabinda have said they will return while others like wideout Chris Godwin and safety Marcus Allen are still mulling a decision.
As a junior, Sickels was Penn State’s top pass rusher, stepping up in the void left behind when national sack leader Carl Nassib went to the NFL along with standout tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel.
A second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2016, Sickels led the Lions with six sacks along with fellow end Evan Schwan. His 12.5 tackles for loss were also tops on the team.
His season — and his career — was likely best defined by his second-half performance in Penn State’s upset of Ohio State in October.
Benched for the first half by coach James Franklin for skipping a class, Sickels responded by making nine tackles (3.5 for loss) with 2.5 sacks as the Lions rallied for a win that propelled them to their fourth Big Ten title and a trip to Pasadena.
NFLDraftScout.com ranks Sickels as the No. 8 defensive end prospect in this spring’s draft.
Penn State will now have to replace both starting defensive ends in 2017 with Schwan, a senior, also leaving.
The Lions defense has, however, used a heavy rotation up front with Torrence Brown, Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz the top candidates to take over first-team duties. Walk-on Colin Castagna is also a name that coaches have mentioned as being in the mix.
Penn State also redshirted five defensive linemen with Shane Simmons — one of the country’s highest-rated recruits in the 2016 class — leading the pack.
Identifying new starters will be a priority for the Lions during spring ball. Penn State’s returning defensive ends combined for 5.5 sacks between them, led by Buchholz’s 3.0.
All of them took a cue from Sickels, who was voted defensive MVP at the team’s banquet in December.
“This journey has been an amazing ride, from my commitment to Penn State in 2012 to this past Rose Bowl game,” Sickels wrote. “I have made friendships and bonds that will last a lifetime. I’m so unbelievably proud to call myself a Penn Stater.”