Sickels, asked about his relationship with Nassib at the NFL's annual scouting combine earlier this month, offered a smile and pointed to the 2015 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as something of a role model during their time together in State College.
“Carl Nassib is a guy who is definitely animated on game day, animated in practice,” Sickels said. “I tell coaches the best thing that ever happened to me at Penn State was playing with Carl, (Lions DL) Anthony Zettel and (Titans DL) Austin Johnson. Those three guys are like the big brothers I never had.”
When Nassib, who led the conference with 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, declared for the draft last year, Sickels was quick to step up. The 6-foot-3, 261-pound junior from New Jersey led the Nittany Lions with six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He also posted a Big Ten-best 43 quarterback pressures.
Now, Sickels — widely thought to be a late-round pick in a loaded defensive line class — is out to prove he can have the same kind of impact at the next level.
“I’m a guy who loves to work, gets after it on the pass rush, loves to push his teammates. I just want to show them I’m ready to work hard, ready to learn a new scheme,” he said. “A guy that’s natural with his hands, I think I’m a natural hand fighter. When I’m rushing I think I have some good bend, I think I have some natural ability and can learn to combine that with an NFL scheme and system. I’m a guy that holds everyone accountable as I hold myself accountable to be 1/11th of the defense.”
That kind of approach helped Sickels go from a cog on Penn State’s defensive line to the leader of it.
Perhaps his best performance came when it mattered most in a primetime showdown against then-No. 2 Ohio State. Sickels terrorized the Buckeyes’ offensive line that night with nine tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, helping lift the Nittany Lions to a dramatic win over their Big Ten rival.
“I just felt that game was a great experience, obviously I had a great game, but I think it kind of set the tone for the way I played the rest of the year,” said Sickels, referencing an 11-3 campaign that saw Penn State win its first Big Ten title since 2008.
“I saw a lot of pride in the team. We had a rough start, but no one really crawled or put their head down and we just kept working. That Ohio State game really set the tone for the back half of the year and the run we went on.”
Sickels, in many ways, was at the heart of that. And he had some help from Nassib and others along the way.
“Those guys and myself took pride in setting the tone in practice and we felt the group would practice the way we practiced, always hustling to the ball, always being depended on, that’s something I took away from them and used it this year,” he said.
“We had a lot of young guys on the defensive line and we had to teach them how to work. No one rises to low expectations. Having those guys really helped me become a leader this year.”