Sykes up for challenge this season

Two seasons ago, he was Indiana’s best pass rusher.

But the Hoosiers expect much more from Nile Sykes this fall, and what they need is a complete player.

Sykes carved a valuable role on third downs during the 2016 campaign, making his mark as an aggressive, yet savvy harasser of quarterbacks. This year, however, his Indiana coaches want him to be just as effective on first and second down.

And after suffering a season-ending injury on the final day of last year’s summer workouts, IU’s fifth-year senior defensive end is eager to meet that challenge.

“I’m very excited,” Sykes said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Indeed it has for the converted linebacker, who led IU’s defensive linemen with five sacks for 37 yards two years ago. The 2016 season served as something of a breakout campaign for Sykes, who had previously found most of his work on special teams after transferring from Notre Dame as a freshman in July 2014.

Now, IU coach Tom Allen and defensive line coach Mark Hagen expect Sykes to build on his most recent production, while adding to his toolbox.

“Two years ago, he was really known for being a pass rusher,” Hagen said. “He wasn’t nearly as solid as you wanted him to be on first and second down against the run. That’s the challenge of making himself into a complete football player and being an every down guy.”

After graduating three starters from last year’s defensive line — ends Robert McCray and Greg Gooch and tackle Nate Hoff — Sykes’ return is welcomed up front.

The former Notre Dame transfer wants to both produce and lead from his spot on the edge, balancing the burden of expectations with his own desire to help the Hoosiers maintain the defensive standard set in the three years since Allen’s arrival.

“Every team in the country lost guys just like us,” Sykes said. “We lost guys, too, so everybody just needs to step up. We have guys getting older, even myself. I wasn’t in a leadership role in years past, but now it’s my time and I need to step up.”

While IU will look to have Sykes step up both as a veteran voice and as a more well-rounded lineman, it’s also thirsty for the pass rushing skills that earned him a role in the defensive line rotation in 2016.

Defensive tackle Jacob Robinson says the fast and twitchy 6-foot-2, 252-pounder has devised his own unique way of finding his way to the quarterback, one that calls the attention of the teammates around him.

“We kind of laugh at it in the defensive line room, but it’s effective,” Robinson said. “Nile is coming off the ball quick, then when he gets to that (offensive lineman), it’s either a stutter or he’s shaking somebody off and going around the corner that way, getting hands on them and throwing them one way or the other. I think it’s kind of unique, but it’s super effective the way he does it.”

For Sykes, it’s all about relying on his instincts and skill set as a former linebacker.

“I think I’ve felt that way since high school,” he said. “I feel the offensive lineman and see what they’re doing and how I can counter their moves as well as incorporating my own moves that I’ve learned here and (moves) that I’ve kind of had with me from growing up.”

Two seasons ago, it all added up to an effective skill set as a much-needed pass rusher off the edge. IU wants Sykes to once again bring those attributes to its defense this season, while also understanding that there’s much more he become, too.

“Don’t just be known as a pass rusher,” Hagen said. “Do a great job on first and second down, then pin your ears back and go get the quarterback on third down.”

One comment

  1. Sykes is one of the returning injured players that can make a big difference in how this defense performs. He will be a major factor in the pass rush and I hope he develops as a tough run defender. Add in Ball to the mix and the front can be much better than many think they will be. Factor in talented players like Fitzgerald and Burgess that didn’t get on the field last year and the defense looks to have more play makers on the field this coming season.

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