'This thing went by quickly': Penn State seniors reflect on careers
UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State football seniors have been at the forefront of the team's 10-win season in 2022.
Whether it's been quarterback Sean Clifford finding the end zone with his legs or his arm, PJ Mustipher controlling the interior front lines as a nose tackle or Ji'Ayir Brown being a ballhawking safety and playing either the deep third of the field or moving up to the line to make a play on the ball, Penn State's seniors have been key to the leadership of the program.
Clifford admitted that he shed a few tears during the pregame Senior Day ceremony. The tears came once he saw his brother and parents. He went back into the locker room, prepared himself for the game and played strongly in the 35-16 victory over Michigan State.
It was all business when he stepped onto the field. The redshirt senior had a strong performance, going 19-for-24 on passes (79%) for 202 passing yards, four touchdown passes and no interceptions. The night and the year as a whole for Penn State's starting quarterback was made all of the more memorable with the results.
"It's not one time or another thing," Clifford said on his decision to come back in 2022. "It's the culmination of everything that this year has been. There's been little moments here and there that nobody sees, that I won't even tell anyone about because it's just with the guys that I've shared it with and part of the journey. So, it's not one moment, it's little little things."
Head coach James Franklin looked back at the things that Clifford and his other seniors provided throughout their tenures at Penn State. Without the emotional and mental intelligence that the seniors have shown, Franklin said, the team wouldn't be where they are today.
"Their leadership has been unbelievable all year long — the vets in that locker room," Franklin said. "I thought the captains were unbelievable all year long, tremendous communication. Their transparency was great. And they were aligned with the coaches, and I got really good feedback from them, that doesn't mean I always necessarily agreed with them, but it was good for me to hear their feedback so ultimately I can make the best decisions for the organization."
One of those captains, Mustipher, has been at Penn State since 2018 and has put together a strong career in his own right. He closed out his second senior season with five tackles (two solo) against Michigan State on Saturday. The senior defensive tackle manned the middle for the Nittany Lions' defense and passed the proverbial torch onto Hakeem Beamon and Coziah Izzard.
"It's kind of the first year since I've been a starter, where we can roll guys and (we have) the trust," Mustipher said. "Anybody can go in and when you have that, when you can go off the field and trust the guys are going to go in and do their jobs at a high level, it means the world because we're fresh. It's paid dividends because down the stretch this year, we've been fresher. It's the freshest that I've been since I've been here. That's because the guys have been putting in the work. It's not easy, they just didn't show up like that. None of us just showed up like that."
Another defensive player also reflected on his time at Penn State.
Brown came from Lackawanna Community College, playing the 2018 and 2019 seasons with the program before his transfer to Penn State. He played sparingly during the 2020 season, watching his team fall to 0-5, before reeling off four straight wins during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He went on to have a breakout 2021 season — compiling 73 tackles (61 solo), six interceptions, five pass deflections, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and a tackle for loss. Brown finished off the 2022 regular season with 59 total tackles (43 solo), three sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, three interceptions and four pass deflections through 12 games.
Playing three seasons with the Nittany Lions, Brown looked to soak in his last game at Beaver Stadium. He reflected back on throwing out the first pitch at a State College Spikes game during the summer, all of his workouts during the offseason and the quickness of the year.
The passage of time waits for no one and all he could do is be thankful for the memories.
"It went like that," Brown said while snapping his fingers. "I remember winter workouts, I remember summer discretionary period — waiting for the season and then it came and it went just like that. So, I'm still trying to grasp everything that happened this year and remember the best times about this team, about this coaching staff, about these players. This thing went by quickly. It's something that we can't get back. It's something that during every game, every tackle, every interception, just provides a memory. I'll try my best to keep those memories alive."
In addition to Brown, Clifford and Mustipher, other players recognized during Senior Day included: Sebastian Constanti, Bryce Effner, Dvon Ellies, Alex Furmanek, Charlie Katshir, Grayson Kline, Jake Pinegar, Joey Porter Jr., Cody Romano, Juice Scruggs, Chris Stoll, Jaden Seider, Jonathan Sutherland, Nick Tarburton, Mitchell Tinsley, Marquis Wilson, Michael Wright and Blake Zalar.