Mustafa Johnson has returned home.
It was about four years ago when Johnson, a Colorado native who lived in Aurora with his tightly-knit family, moved to California so he and his mother could remain close to Johnson's older brother, who was starting college in California at the time.
Johnson is back in his home state now, donning the black and gold at the University of Colorado. While his Colorado-to-California and back again journey appears somewhat straightforward, Johnson's football journey has been far more circuitous. A newcomer to the Buffaloes from the junior college ranks, the sophomore defensive end is hoping to provide a consistent pass rush that was sorely lacking for CU in 2017.
After his brief JUCO career, Johnson arrives in Boulder with three years of eligibility remaining.
"I've always loved nature and this is my type of area," Johnson said following CU's first official practice Thursday morning. "It's actually a big change, coming from the Aurora area to Boulder. Completely different type of people. But I'm enjoying it. I'm having fun.
"I had one job, and that was to go to school and play ball. I got it done."
Johnson graduated from high school in 2017 as an undersized, 250-pound defensive end whose interest from recruiters was culled mostly from the Division II ranks.
Yet Johnson remained confident he had more to offer, and he didn't think twice about gambling on himself. Last year he continued his career at Modesto Junior College, bulking up to 280 pounds before hitting the field. Johnson put his newfound strength to work, recording 6 ½ sacks while earning first team all-league honors.
In the end, Johnson only spent one semester at Modesto before returning to his native Colorado.
"I plan on coming in and playing ball, doing what I do," Johnson said. "I'm learning new stuff as I go and I'm enjoying it, working hard. The biggest adjustment is just the time. At JUCO you just show up for a two-hour practice and you're done. Here, we're here all day. And the structure. Adjusting to the structure is a big deal, too."
If Johnson can eventually come close to matching the production he turned in during his one season at the junior college level, he will become an immediate asset for a Buffs defense that struggled to harass opposing quarterbacks. CU recorded just 22 sacks in 2017 after posting 36 while winning the Pac-12 Conference South Division title in 2016. Roughly half of those 22 sacks last year were recorded by two players who have since graduated — Leo Jackson (5 ½ ) and Derek McCartney (5).
Johnson enrolled at CU for the spring semester and ended spring workouts at the top of CU's depth chart at left defensive end. New defensive line coach Kwahn Drake has been impressed with the skill-set Johnson has brought to the table so far.
"He's been really active. A fast learner who does a lot of little things right," Drake said. "Speed and athleticism. You can drill a lot of things, but speed and athleticism is something you kind of have to have already on your own. No doubt he will help us rush the passer. He is in our pass-rushing package."