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How Penn State Plans to Tackle Its Defense — and Opponents — Without PJ Mustipher

Photo by Penn State Athletics: PJ Mustipher

When Penn State senior defensive lineman PJ Mustipher went down early in the first quarter against then-No. 3 Iowa a week and a half ago and returned to the sideline on crutches, there was hope his injury wasn’t too serious. When Mustipher was officially ruled out for the season, it was a crushing blow to one of the top defenses in the nation.

However, it wasn’t just a crushing blow for the Nittany Lions, it was a huge loss for Mustipher — who was in the midst of his strongest season in Happy Valley.

As a 6-foot-4, 325-pound brick wall in the middle of the Lions’ defense, Mustipher’s presence, both literally and figuratively, will be hard to replace. There aren’t too many men, even in Division I college football that can move with such speed and precision at his size. A prospect of the 2022 NFL Draft, who was building a compelling case for sneaking into the first round, Mustipher is now forced to sit back, not finish his senior season and rehab.

Lions head coach James Franklin has been watching Mustipher closely, wanting to monitor his star senior’s mood in wake of such a devastating prognosis, and he’s liked the response he’s seen. As Franklin said, in talking about it with his wife, coaching staff and others, Mustipher’s handling it like everything else in his life: extremely well.

“But sometimes, when guys are handling things too well, that concerns me too, you know?” Franklin said. “[I] try to give him a big hug every day and check on him and ask him how he is and tell him that if he needs anything, we’re here. My daughter, Shola, made him some cupcakes the other day, just trying to love on him and support him as much as we possibly can.”

And while Franklin and the Lions are trying to support Mustipher, he’s still firmly supporting his team — even if he can’t take the field.

While Mustipher is still unable to walk on his own yet, recovering from his lower-body injury, he hasn’t taken a minute off from supporting his teammates. In fact, Franklin has seen him everywhere across the facilities. Mustipher is on the practice fields, he’s in the team meetings and Franklin even saw him in the training room before coming to Tuesday’s media session.

As Franklin left for the media session, Mustipher was in the training room, riding a bike with a big smile on his face. But on most days, he’s whipping around the facilities on a go kart-like scooter, the kind that Franklin said you might find at the mall.

So, while Mustipher’s veteran leadership will still be felt across the broad areas of Lions’ football, it will be impossible to replace his leadership and production on Saturdays.

“Hopefully we don’t lose the leadership in every aspect but on the field on game day,” Franklin said. “Obviously, that’s impossible to replicate out there on the field because he did have such a presence, but in terms of at practice, in the meeting rooms and those types of things, I expect and hope that will continue.”

With Mustipher continuing to provide that veteran leadership across all aspects of the field, except on the field on Saturdays, Franklin is lucky to have a group of veteran defenders to fill in the gaps.

“It’s a great opportunity for other guys to step up and the good thing on defense is we do have a lot of veteran leaders. Jesse [Luketa]’s played a lot of football for us, Ellis [Brooks] has played a lot of football for us, [Jaquan] Brisker and [Tariq] Castro-[Fields] have played a lot of football for us. Even [Arnold Ebiketie], even though he’s a new guy to our program, he’s played a lot of football for us.”

Luketa, a senior linebacker, and Brooks, a redshirt senior linebacker, have both played in 40 career games. Brisker, a senior safety, has played in 27 games and turned into an All-American defensive back, and Castro-Fields, a senior cornerback, is one of the most experienced players in the program with 45 career games played.

A mix of veteran leadership and youthful skill filling the defense, Franklin pointed to the need for a balanced step-up — opposed to one single player filling Mustipher’s hole.

“Those guys need to bring a little bit more of that to the table, and we need others guys that maybe weren’t providing that type of role on the team to take a little bit as well,” Franklin said. “It’s not gonna be one guy that’s gonna replace [PJ], we need five or six percent to Jesse, 10 percent to Ellis, so forth and so on, to make up what we lost from PJ on the field.”

From a purely defensive line aspect, aside from guys like Ebiketie and senior defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo, it’s going to be a concerted effort from younger, inexperienced guys to step up to replace production. Guys like redshirt sophomore Dvon Ellies, redshirt freshman Coziah Izzard and redshirt freshman Amin Vanover.

“[Ellies and Cozard] have been good, and we’ve also amped up the opportunities and the reps for Amin Vanover and talked about him putting some weight on for the last couple of weeks, and he’s done a good job of that.”

Sophomore defensive tackle Jordan van den Berg, a community college transfer from Iowa Western, was another name Franklin mentioned that was getting more reps.

“I think Dvon has taken some really good strides from the beginning of the year and so has Coziah,” Franklin said. “And we need them to. It’s all about consistency, and I think you guys have all heard me say that before. All these guys have the talent and ability to do it, but there’s a difference between doing it three out of 10 plays compared to eight or nine out of 10 plays.”

Ellies has played in three games this season, recording five tackles (three solo), and Izzard has played in four games, accumulating five tackles (two solo), a sack and a run stuff. Vanover and van den Berg haven’t recorded stats for the Lions yet this season, but they’ll be expected to make an impact as the season hits the toughest point.

Franklin boils it all down to be able to be consistent in technique, fundamentals and assignment eight, nine or 10 times out 10 the rest of the way. He said the defense is trending in the right direction right now, but that’ll become apparent soon.

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