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Backup defensive end still looking for consistency after strong showing

It took two years for Nile Sykes to record his first collegiate sack.

The redshirt sophomore found his way into the backfield against Florida International in Miami in the opening week of the season.

And after what defensive coordinator Tom Allen said was the defensive end’s best game — two sacks and a tackle for loss in the loss against Northwestern loss Saturday — the Hoosiers are expecting consistency from the sophomore who is starting to find his stride.

“He sure (put it together) Saturday and, to me, that was encouraging,” Allen said. “But, I will say I felt like the talent was there. It’s the consistent preparation that creates the consistent performance.”

That’s been the story for Sykes’ collegiate career at IU — the lack of consistency.

The sophomore said it’s been learning to practice and play hard, and knowing what to expect of himself that has been the greatest challenge in his two years and change in Bloomington.

“If you ask any coach, since I’ve been here, I’ve had to learn how to work hard and practice,” Sykes said. “I’ve really had to work to change my whole mindset, coming from high school and transitioning to college.”

Sykes played special teams in 2015, recording just five tackles, and opportunities weren’t there for the former linebacker in 2015 with former Hoosiers Zack Shaw and Nick Mangieri coming off the edge.

So he moved to defensive end with teammate Greg Gooch in 2016.

The defensive line — a group attempting to find its identity with a new coach in Mark Hagan and the three top pass rushers gone from the team — began the season preparing nearly a dozen players to see 
the field.

Sykes began behind Gooch as the edge rusher of Allen’s new 4-2-5 defense, but it appeared Sykes might find a spot after he recorded the first sack of his career in the season opener.

But in the next five games, the sophomore only statistically contributed seven tackles and a fumble recovery. Not the consistency the coaching staff was hoping for from a talented edge rusher that initially committed to Notre Dame.

Now, after the Northwestern game, Sykes leads the team in sacks, with three, and is third on the team with four tackles 
for loss.

“We tell our guys, ‘There are a lot of things you can accomplish with hard work and playing with a high motor,’” IU linebackers coach William Inge said. “The one thing you always have to do is play hard. He got his sacks from playing hard.”

Working hard is something that has been an issue for the defensive end because, like many players at the Division I collegiate football level, he was better than his high school teammates and opponents in Illinois, Inge said.

But when Allen came into Bloomington and took the reigns as defensive coordinator, Sykes said he made it clear that to play on this defense, he had to work harder than ever.

“As soon as he came in, he told me what he expected in me,” Sykes said. “He won’t let me not achieve what he believes I can. It’s either 100 percent or don’t be on the field. I have no choice but to play hard and do what they expect of me.”

It’s the effort the sophomore gave against Northwestern that Allen expects. More specifically, that effort at a consistent level.

Not two sacks every game, but having a presence in a pass rush that ranks second-to-last in the 
Big Ten.

“Along the heels of that (Northwestern performance) comes, ‘Hey, now you’ve put on film what I believed you had in you all along,’” Allen said. “Now we have to practice at a higher level to get that again and again and again.’”

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