Penn State DT PJ Mustipher ready to finish what's on his plate this season
INDIANAPOLIS — Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher is the type of guy who sets out to finish any goal you put in front of him. Especially when it’s a plate of food.
Or in Mustipher’s case, plates.
On the eve of Big Ten Media Days, Mustipher and 2 teammates went out to dinner at Indy’s venerable St. Elmo’s Steakhouse with Nittany Lions coach James Franklin.
Franklin’s 50-year-old metabolism was left speechless by what he witnessed. Or rather the opposite of speechless, because it was seemingly all Franklin could talk about.
“One of the most impressive things that I’ve ever seen is PJ ate one of the biggest steaks I’ve ever seen in my life, biggest piles of mashed potatoes, ate the shrimp,” Franklin said. “And then also ordered a full separate meal of two lobster tails that are massive. And he crushed it all.”
Mustipher thinks his coach might be overstating his case, noting the steak was “only” 28 ounces.
“It was 28 ounces. Man, that was easy,” Mustipher said. “I eat, like, 24-ounce steaks every week. The steak was good, so it was easy.”
One thing that isn’t overstated? The impact the 6-4, 321-pound Mustipher has on Penn State’s defense.
Man in the middle
“Obviously everybody that covers Penn State closely and covers the Big Ten closely understands how important PJ Mustipher has been for our program over the last 4 years, and specifically last year,” Franklin said. “A lot of people talk about [how in] the game of football, you want to be strong up the middle [defensively]. Very similar to baseball. And having a nose guard like PJ Mustipher to set the tone is really, really important.”
Last season, Mustipher appeared in 6 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury at Iowa in Week 6. When he was in the lineup, the Nittany Lions allowed 3.05 yards per carry — and that includes games against run-heavy opponents Wisconsin and Auburn.
Without Mustipher, the Lions got gashed. Opponents averaged 4.35 yards per carry. Both Illinois and Arkansas gained more than 350 yards on the ground against Penn State.
Getting Mustipher back on the field feels like a must. But the journey back to the field has not been easy.
A tough road back
The physical damage from Mustipher’s injury could be seen in his left knee. But the bigger challenge is overcoming the anguish that came with it.
At the time he was hurt, Penn State was 5-0 and ranked 4th nationally. The Nittany Lions had a lead at No. 3 Iowa. Things were setting up for an exciting fall in Happy Valley.
Then Mustipher went down. Shortly thereafter, quarterback Sean Clifford was lost for the remainder of the game. The Hawkeyes came back to win.
“I was never a person to say ‘why me?’ But why now? Why when we’re 5-0, No.  in the country, feeling great and playing good football? Why now?” Mustipher recalls.
It took the perspective of passing time to get there, but Mustipher no longer has those feelings about the unfortunate timing of he and Clifford’s injuries.
“Everything happens for a reason. It was challenging watching that. I never want to be watching anything while my team’s going and I’m just sitting back. But it happens,” Mustipher said. “You’ve got to move on, got to be better from it. Gotta grow from it. We’re excited where we’re at now. We put that in the past and we’re ready to move on.
“Guys got a taste of what being at Penn State is really like when we’re 5-0 and campus is buzzing and people are talking about us. Guys got a taste of that. And I think guys want that back. And we have an opportunity to get started on that Sept. 1.”
That opportunity — a tantalizing Thursday night season-opener at Purdue — helped push Mustipher through the challenges of his first major injury rehab.
“I can do the physical part all day long. I’m a college football player. That ain’t nothing to me,” Mustipher said. “The mental part, you’ve got to be sharp. There are days where you’re like ‘Man, I don’t even want to do this.’ And I’ve definitely thought about that. That was the toughest part for sure.”
Mustipher ready to roll
The tough part is over. Mustipher passed his conditioning test last week.
“It wasn’t modified,” he states. “You can write that down.”
The subject was a bit of a running joke at Media Days, as both Franklin and Clifford interrupted his press conference to let everyone know Mustipher passed the conditioning test.
Mustipher was back on the field, finally, for the open of Penn State’s training camp this week.
“I understand there will be challenges. I haven’t played football in a long time,” he said. “I’m not going to be used to people falling on my injured leg. Knee. Whatever you want to call it. That’s going to be the next challenge.
“But I checked off the box for rehab. I checked off the box for the conditioning test. Now I’m going to check off the box for camp. It’s going to be like no other process. It’s going to be difficult. But I’m ready for it.”
Franklin is more than ready to have him back in the lineup.
“PJ is a football guy, and he’s been an unbelievable representative of our program and our conference for 5 years now,” Franklin said. “We are blessed and fortunate to have PJ back as a leader of our defense, and I think you guys will see big things out of him this year.”