Every injured Pittsburgh player was ready by the time summer conditioning workouts rolled around with just one exception. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas, who suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during Game 2 against Grambling, progressed much slower than his teammates.
"But I'm ready to go now,'' Mustakas said earlier this week. "I'm allowed to do everything, all the drills with the rest of the D-linemen, everything they can do. All the running and cutting. I can go full speed in every direction.''
Mustakas doesn't appear to be able to play any other way. It's been full speed ahead for Mustakas ever since he arrived at Pitt from Chaminade-Madonna Prep School in Cooper City, Fla. An reserve defensive end as a freshman in 2005, Mustakas recorded three sacks and three pass breakups in 11 games.
Mustakas beefed up a bit in 2006 and started all 12 games at a tackle spot. He had a fumble recovery and an interception, but mostly just wreaked havoc on the interior of opposing offensive lines. Mustakas and the Panthers had higher hopes for the 6-foot-3, 280-pound bruiser last fall, but that was quickly dashed in Game 2 against Grambling.
And as his fourth preseason training camp is about to begin, Mustakas couldn't be more ready to get started.
"About three weeks ago I really started picking it up, since I finally was able to do everything the other guys can do,'' Mustakas said. "And it's worked out perfect for me. It's perfect timing, because camp is just about ready to start. So, I'll be ready to go for the first practice Aug. 5.
"I guess I'm a little rusty right now, but maybe everybody else is, too. We don't really do much but work on conditioning during the summer, but we run through a few things on our own and have some 7-on-7 stuff. That's about it, but it was good to finally be back out there with the guys again.''
Mustakas noted that his knee is sturdy, and there should be no lingering effects from the damage he suffered both physically and mentally.
"No, I really try not to think about it,'' Mustakas said. "The ACL is strong, and I just have to forget about it. I'm ready to go full speed ahead. I'm ready to play the way I used to play, better than that.''
It's been a while for Mustakas, since he played in less than two games last fall, but that's something he can even joke about now.
"Yeah, I can laugh about it now, that it's been so long I don't even know if I remember how to play, but I'm sure it'll all come back to me pretty quick,'' Mustakas said. "And I look at it a couple of ways. I'm healthy now, my knee, of course, but my shoulders, too. They were always sore, but they feel great now.
"And I feel fresh. I never missed a game before last season's injury, so it was crazy to miss a whole season. But it also got me to look at the game in a different way. I got a different perspective from the sideline. I paid more attention to details, watched more film and just learned a lot about the game.''
And while situation thinned Pitt at defensive tackle initially, it opened opportunities for Rashaad Duncan, Mick Williams and Tommie Duhart to pick up their play. And each appeared to elevate his play with every snap.
Duncan, now a senior, played the best football of his career at Pitt, while Duhart was a capable backup as a sophomore in just his first season. Williams remained healthy throughout the year and was among the Panthers' top defensive players by the end of the season. With redshirt freshman Myles Caragein in the mix this fall, Pitt's defensive tackle rotation should be even better.
"I realize that I won't be able to walk in and start again,'' Mustakas said. "Our D-tackles did a great job last year, the whole D-line, the entire defense, for that matter. So, I'm approaching it like I'm a freshman all over again, and I have to beat those guys out. But, no matter who starts, we'll all play a lot.
"We're really deep up front, for sure, and much deeper than we were all the way around on defense. The young linebackers will give the starters a run for it, and we have a lot of talent in the secondary as well. We played well defensively last year, but I think this is our season to make a big impact in the Big East and on a national level. We have a chance to be really good.''
And with Mustakas finally healthy again, he should be able to do his part as a primary run-stuffer up the middle.