A true big man surrounded by quick, agile teammates, PJ Mustipher plays a central role on Penn State's defense
PJ Mustipher spent a few seconds in the national spotlight in Penn State’s wild 28-20 victory over Auburn.
Penn State’s largest defensive player at 320 pounds, Mustipher ran the ball on a fake punt, getting stuffed initially by Auburn and then by the SEC officiating crew, which apparently ruled his progress had been stopped. It was an odd juxtaposition for the 4th-year defensive tackle, with his smaller teammates trying to push him across the line to gain. Mustipher is usually the one doing the pushing, and certainly not the one with the ball.
As Penn State, now at No. 6 in the AP Poll, moves ahead to preparations for Villanova’s visit to Beaver Stadium come Saturday, Mustipher will go back to being largely unnoticed. Not by his teammates, of course, or head coach James Franklin, who calls Mustipher one off his hardest workers — a team captain for a reason. But guys playing his position aren’t often the subject of ESPN highlights or YouTube videos. They tend to toil in obscurity.
Surrounded by quick, agile athletes in Brent Pry’s defense, Mustipher does the dirty work to help guys named Brisker, Brown, Brooks, Ebiketie and Luketa gain the spotlight.
Having come up short on 4th-and-1, he might never be the star of the show. It’s extremely rare for anyone playing an interior line position. It takes freak athleticism and the right circumstances for a DT to gain national attention like Daviyon Nixon did last year at Iowa. As you might recall, Nixon’s fame peaked with a pick 6 against Penn State.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 21, 2020
Well, Nixon has moved on to the NFL with Carolina, making Mustipher the leading tackler among returning Big Ten interior defensive linemen. Ohio State’s Haskell Garrett looks like the heir apparent to Nixon among DTs in the B1G after rumbling for a scoop and score in the Buckeyes’ opener against Minnesota.
But its worth noting that super senior Garrett has only 2 career sacks, same as Mustipher, and 47 fewer career tackles.
Mustipher has literally gotten bigger and better entering this season. In high school in Owings Mills, Md., he already had 285 pounds on his 6-4 frame. As a true freshman in 2018, he played in 12 games at a listed weight of 300 pounds. He beefed up to 311 as a sophomore and — after losing a few pounds a year ago — entered this season at 326, according PSU’s official roster. He’s been a contributor from the start, appearing in 25 games with 1 start through his first 2 years in the program before starting all 9 games in 2020.
If he does nothing more than occupy opposing offensive linemen, he’s doing a lot for the Lions. Supposedly thin at defensive end entering the season, Pry and Franklin have to be more worried about their interior guys at this point.
Mustipher did his part with 7 tackles in the opener, including 1 of the team’s 6 TFLs, but only 1 other DT posted stats against the Badgers. Sophomore Dvon Ellies had 2 tackles.
“I thought PJ Mustipher played extremely well,” Franklin said in the aftermath of the 16-10 victory over the Badgers.
Through 3 games, Duke transfer Derrick Tangelo is settling in as the other starter at DT and Ellies seems to be the top reserve. Fred Hansard and Hakeem Beamon seem to be out of the picture for now. Freshmen Coziah Izzard and Fatorma Mulbah are picking up the spare snaps on the defensive interior. As Penn State doesn’t release depth charts or injury reports, that’s as much as we can know.
It has been a minor criticism of Franklin by some, including me, that his teams have been heavy on speed and athleticism and light on size and power.
On defense, Mustipher looks to be the answer to that criticism. He doesn’t need to make ESPN highlights ala Nixon and Garrett, he just needs to hold his ground and occupy centers and guards while his teammates are racing around them.
He’s walking around at 320-325 pounds these days, he says, up about 30 pounds from his playing weight a year ago.
“I’ve kinda gotten to the right weight. I’m not too heavy, I’m not to light. I’m at a good spot right now,” he said during a pre-Auburn media session. “I definitely feel better out there when I’m taking on double teams.”
He is THE big man on defense. All the other DTs have a lot left to prove, and outside of that position group, Mustipher has 60 pounds on every defensive player on the roster. Ebiketie goes 256, and the heaviest DE, Smith Vilbert, is listed at 263. At LB, 11 of the 12 on the roster are sub-250 pounds. No safeties hit 210 on the scale and no corners hit 200.
If you want to know “where’s the beef?” on this defense, it’s the guy filling out the No. 97 jersey.
Elected 1 of the team’s 6 captains, he knows he’s filling a big role, leading a position group that skews young outside of grad transfer Tangelo and the seemingly missing Hansard.
“It’s my room, and I have to be responsible for what goes on in that room,” he said during a summer media session.
He said he worked on every facet of his game heading into what will be his final college season unless he uses the NCAA’s COVID-related bonus year of eligibility. He entered the year brimming with confidence, for himself and his team.
His main message at Big Ten Media Days in July: “Penn State’s in store for big things this 2021 season.”
Mustipher plans to keep doing his part, with grad assistant Deion Barnes keeping him honest.
“He took me through a couple things that he feels I can improve [after the Ball State game]. We had a tough conversation, and he really just broke it down. It was good to hear. I’m going to continue to get better every day. That’s my only focus. I know the rest will take care of itself.”
After 3 years of quiet contributions, Mustipher might make some noise for himself and a defensive unit that is turning heads through 3 weeks of play. If he has NFL dreams, now is the time to garner some attention, to impress some scouts.
According to Pro Football Focus, he graded out worse in 2020 than he did in 2019. PFF listed Tangelo as a preseason third-team All-Big Ten tackle, and didn’t have Mustipher among the top 8 guys at the 2 interior positions.
But those critics don’t know how hard Mustipher has worked on his body and his game in recent months. Franklin says Mustipher passes linebacker fitness benchmarks.
It’s all geared toward restoring a standard coming off last season’s 4-5 finish.
“Coach Franklin said he was going to push us to where we haven’t been pushed, and he wasn’t lying,” Mustipher said of Penn State’s spring and summer workouts. “There were some days where I thought, ‘dang, I don’t even know if I can get through this,’ and I’ve been here a couple years.”
Through 3 weeks, Mustipher is making the grade in 2021. He leads B1G DTs with 4.0 tackles per game. If he keeps it up, people will notice. And if he needs to take that bonus year at PSU to enhance his NFL odds, I’m sure Nittany Lions fans won’t mind. I mean, that could be huge.