Long after the final whistle has echoed on Penn State’s practice field, PJ Mustipher is often still there — settling into his three-point stance, driving a sled with all the power that comes with being 313 pounds, and then doing it over again and again.
Mustipher, a sophomore defensive tackle, never feels like he’s done enough, even after practice is supposed to over. And that’s why teammates use the same word to describe the young talent.
“Hard worker,” defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos said. “He’s always someone after practice, you could find him on the sled by himself or in a group. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, workdays, he’s out there striking the sled getting extra work in.”
Mustipher has said he spends each week preparing as if he’s the starter but, this week, it’s a little different. He is the starter. All those additional hours on the practice field have come full circle and, with the one-game suspension of starting DT Antonio Shelton, Mustipher is now poised to make his first career start Saturday against Minnesota.
In reality, Mustipher is a backup in name only. The Maryland native has played in 11 more snaps this season than Shelton, according to the blog Roar Lions Roar. But head coach James Franklin said Mustipher can expect to play about 15-20 snaps more than usual in Minneapolis.
Mustipher will be relied on more than ever Saturday. But his teammates don’t expect a drop-off on defense.
“As a unit and as a defense, we have the utmost in confidence in PJ,” Gross-Matos added. “There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to come in and do his part.”
Mustipher’s path to becoming a starter has been an inevitable one. He played in 12 games last season as a rookie, making him the first true freshman to play along the interior of a Penn State defense under position coach Sean Spencer. In fact, Mustipher was just the second true freshman DT to see significant time during Spencer’s 24-year coaching career.
The first? Bowling Green’s Chris Jones in 2009. Three years later, Jones went on to become the MAC Defensive Player of the Year. “Played for the (New England) Patriots and won a Super Bowl,” Spencer added.
The staff doesn’t want Mustipher to get too far ahead of himself. But his production is impossible to overlook: Eight games into his second season, despite playing in just 43 percent of the defensive snaps, he boasts 21 tackles, three tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble. Gross-Matos leads all linemen with 26 stops — and he’s played nearly 100 more snaps.
“He’s a guy we have a lot of confidence and a lot of belief in,” Franklin said earlier this season, referring to Mustipher. “He’s a coach’s dream, in terms of making corrections and holding yourself accountable. He just works too hard not to be successful.”
Mustipher’s first starting assignment won’t be an easy one. Minnesota boasts one of the nation’s most massive offensive lines, which features just one starter — center Conner Olson — who weighs in at less than 325 pounds.
But Penn State’s sophomore DT has impressed since before he stepped foot in Happy Valley — Spencer recalled with a laugh how Mustipher stuffed opposing ball-carriers on every other play in high school — and there’s a reason he’s garnered comparisons to former Penn State great Austin Johnson. Mustipher’s wrestling background, leverage and work ethic give him the potential to be great.
And, with his first career start looming Saturday, this could be only the beginning.