The day doesn’t begin — or end — until PJ Mustipher has knocked out his pushups.
Since he was a seventh grader at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School in Pikesville, Mustipher has incorporated an almost daily regimen of pushups. What started as a series of 40 pushups has now increased to 100, which he still completes after waking up or before turning in as a defensive tackle for the Penn State football team.
“Being on the defensive line and playing in the Big Ten, you’ve got to be strong, and you’ve got to be big,” the 6-foot-4, 311-pound sophomore said. “I’m able to be physical at the point of attack and have my strength be better than it’s ever been. So it’s just something that started earlier in my life, and I continue to do it, and it has paid dividends to having that natural strength.”
The 20-year-old Owings Mills resident and McDonogh graduate has contributed to the Nittany Lions’ strength as one of the top programs in the country. Penn State finished the regular season 10-2 and ranked No. 10 in the final College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings and will meet American Athletic Conference champion No. 17 Memphis (12-1) in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday at noon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Although the Nittany Lions were left out of the playoff, Mustipher is not taking another trip to a bowl for granted.
“We know the type of talent we have in this locker room,” he said. “We know the guys in this locker room and what we’re capable of. Just to put it forward on the football field, in life, a reward is nice. Whether it’s football or anything else, a reward is nice. But what comes with that is you have to keep working if you want to continue to have success. So we keep that mindset.”
Despite making only one start this season, Mustipher ranks fourth among the team’s defensive linemen in tackles with 35 and has added 3½ tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one quarterback hurry.
Those numbers are a significant improvement from a freshman campaign in which he had 14 tackles and one tackle for loss. Penn State associate head coach and defensive line coach Sean Spencer said he has not been surprised by Mustipher’s play because of his enthusiasm.
“If you call him out onto the practice field for his rep, he runs out there like it’s fourth-and-1 against Ohio State. It’s unbelievable,” said Spencer, who said he discovered Mustipher as a freshman when the coach was trying to recruit the late Jordan McNair from McDonogh. “That’s how you want it. That’s what you want to coach, and that’s what you want breeding in your room, guys that love football. He’s not caught up in all of that other stuff. He loves football.”
Former McDonogh football coach Dom Damico said Mustipher was a natural leader because of his work ethic.
“I think the thing I remember about him the most was the fact that he was just the pacesetter in every practice,” he recalled. “He outpaced everyone, even the skill guys, the 170-, 180-, 200-pound guys from drill to drill and day to day. His energy was contagious. So I think part of his leadership set was that he was going to be the first in each drill.”
Mustipher joked that he is still seeking his first sack since a regular-season finale against Gilman in his senior year. He said he is pleased with his personal numbers, but noted there is room for growth.
“I feel like I’ve had success this season, but I definitely want to be better and this team as a whole wants to be better,” he said. “I’ve had a good amount of success this year, and I just want to keep growing. I’ve made big plays here and there, but I’ve just got to continue to work.”
Football has been the thread that binds the Mustipher family. Father Sam was a defensive end at West Virginia, and older brother Sam was a starting center at Notre Dame who latched onto the Chicago Bears in the summer as an undrafted rookie.
It was the elder Sam who conceived the idea of adding pushups to his sons’ workouts. At first reluctant to incorporate something as physically taxing as pushups, both sons said they now appreciate their father’s foresight.
“Our dad has always had our best interests in mind,” the younger Sam Mustipher said. “When you start doing something, it becomes a habit, and that’s what he instilled in us. Now we just enjoy doing them.”
Family vacations to Miami and Myrtle Beach included daily workouts of at least two hours at area gyms and fields. Both sons said that routine helped accelerate their development, which delighted the elder Sam Mustipher.
“I’m proud of them, but I’m not surprised because I saw them sweating,” he said. “I saw them not being able to be the first ones at the amusement park because they had to work out first. They had to stand in the long lines because we weren’t there the first thing in the morning. So it made it all worth it to see PJ play as a true freshman at Penn State and have the success that he’s having during his sophomore year.”
Sam and wife Patricia have attended every Nittany Lions game, and brother Sam traveled to Iowa during the Bears’ bye week to watch Penn State leave with a 17-12 win. PJ Mustipher, who talks with his brother at least once a week and exchanges texts every day, said his brother has always been his role model.
“Last year, I was blessed and fortunate to play as a true freshman, but my brother really had to grind for what he got at Notre Dame,” he said. “Nothing was handed to him. He really had to put his head down and grind. But he was able to start for three years and be an All American and be a captain, and his name is inside the stadium at Notre Dame, and it will be there forever for his children to see and his grandkids to see. That’s something I want for myself, but at the end of the day, it comes down to how hard he worked, and I admire that a lot.”
Spencer, the Nittany Lions defensive line coach, said Mustipher reminds him of former defensive end Austin Johnson, who was selected by the Tennessee Titans in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. Spencer predicted that Mustipher would join his brother and Johnson in the NFL.
“Unlimited,” Spencer said of Mustipher’s potential. “I think he’s an NFL prospect. … If he trends the way I think he is, the guy is going to be a draft pick.”
No. 10 Penn State vs. No. 17 Memphis
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas