Despite a season-ending injury, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher still roams the Penn State sidelines during practice, and he does it in style.
“He’s on one of those … it’s kind of what you see people in the mall kind of whip around on, a little go-kart or whatever the heck they’re called,” head coach James Franklin said. “He’s whipping around at practice. He’s at meetings. He’s at everything.”
One of Mustipher’s buddies on the defensive line thinks it’s pretty cool, too.
“Just his presence on the sideline on his little scooter, it’s a joy to have him,” defensive end Jesse Luketa said, adding, “It’s a one-seater so I can’t fit on it with him.”
An apparent left knee injury suffered early in the Oct. 9 game against Iowa sidelined the 325-pound Mustipher, a senior, but it didn’t affect his spirit or his leadership or his desire to be around the Nittany Lions, who are preparing for Saturday’s homecoming game against Illinois at Beaver Stadium.
As one of the best defensive linemen in the Big Ten, Mustipher knows of what he speaks, continuing to offer his insights and his input into what his teammates are doing on defense.
“He’s a very vocal guy,” defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo said. “He’s very team-oriented. He likes to see us succeed. Just having him around, just to be able to answer any questions or point out anything that he sees from a technique or scheme standpoint, I feel like that’s very valuable because he does have the most experience.”
Of course, the loss of Mustipher leaves a tremendous void, not only in the actual defensive scheme but also in terms of leadership during the game, maybe some guidance between plays or encouragement when the opponent makes a big gain.
Luketa, however, feels that he and his fellow seniors — linebacker Ellis Brooks and defensive backs Tariq Castro-Fields and Jaquan Brisker — will be able to continue what Mustipher does.
“As far as leadership, there’s no drop-off,” he said. “We lost a big piece, one of our soldiers, but it’s that much more of an emphasis why we’ve got to play harder for P because he’d do anything to be out there with us. So we’re doing this for him.”
Franklin said the seniors and some of the younger veterans such as linebacker Brandon Smith and defensive backs Ji’Ayir Brown and Joey Porter Jr., “need to bring a little bit more of that [leadership] to the table.”
“Then we need other guys that maybe weren’t providing that type of role on the team to take a little bit of it as well,” he said. “It’s not going to be one guy that’s going to replace him. We need five or six percent to Jesse, 10 percent to Ellis, so on and so forth, to make up for what we’ve lost from PJ on the field.”
The Lions, who were a little low on experience at defensive tackle going into the spring, have turned to some promising younger players to build depth.
Redshirt sophomore Dvon Ellies likely will take Mustipher’s spot in the starting lineup. Redshirt freshman Coziah Izzard has been the No. 4 man in the tackle rotation but will move up. Franklin said the coaches have “amped up the reps” for redshirt freshman Amin Vanover and sophomore Jordan van den Berg.
“It’s all about consistency,” he said. “All these guys have the talent and the ability to do it, but there’s a difference between doing it three out of 10 plays or eight or nine out of 10 plays. And that’s the expectation and the standard that we need.”
Meanwhile, Mustipher will be at the scene at the Lasch Football Building making sure his teammates are all right. And Franklin will do the same with him.
“We keep checking on him and make sure he’s doing well, and I hope he understands and feels comfortable enough to be totally honest with me and transparent and vulnerable,” he said. “If he is struggling, we’re all here to support him.”