A buzz has grown throughout the preseason around Mustafa Johnson, a new addition to the Colorado defense who was brought in from the junior college ranks to fortify a defensive front that struggled in 2017.
Nate Landman isn't exactly a new face, but the handful of big hits he delivered in spot duty last year as a true freshman only heightened expectations for what he might be able to do in an expanded role this fall.
If the first impressions prove to be a harbinger of things to come this season for Johnson and Landman, then CU defensive coordinator DJ Eliot should be excited about the possibilities of overseeing an improved unit this year. Both players turned in excellent 2018 debuts during Friday night's 45-13 thrashing of Colorado State in the annual Rocky Mountain Showdown.
Johnson is a Colorado native who was born and raised in Aurora before moving to California just before high school. After playing one season at Modesto Junior College, Johnson's first game back in his home state will be a memorable one for the sophomore defensive end, as he wasted little time making a big impact.
With a large contingent of family and friends in attendance to see his first Division I game back in his home state, Johnson admitted he had to shake off some nerves before the first snap.
"I remember just sitting on the bus thinking of all the plays that could happen," Johnson said. "I was very nervous. My legs were shaking. All I can do is go back to my roots with what I've been practicing for all of fall camp. We got out there and got it done."
Johnson was a key presence on three of the Buffs' first four defensive possessions, starting with a third-down stop of CSU quarterback KJ Carta-Samuels on the Rams' first possession. Five plays later a Steven Montez-to-KD Nixon touchdown gave the Buffs a 14-0 lead.
Johnson shared a sack with Carson Wells later in the quarter, and he combined with Landman to record what probably was the Buffs' most important defensive play of the night early in the second quarter. With the Buffs leading 21-7, a Montez interception briefly gave the Rams a window of opportunity. Yet on a second-down play near midfield, Johnson managed to tip a Carta-Samuels pass that was then intercepted by Landman.
Instead of the Rams potentially going in for a score that would have cut the CU lead to a touchdown, the Buffs soon tacked on another score to make it 28-7, which basically took the fight out of the Rams.
"That (interception was huge). Momentum is a big part of the game, and that was a momentum swing," Eliot said. "For those guys to be able to execute and make that play, it was a big play for us."
The interception also was one of several highlights for Landman, who seemingly was everywhere during the first half. In addition to his first career interception, Landman finished with two tackles for loss, six solo tackles, a pass breakup, and a team-leading 16 total tackles. Johnson recorded 1.5 tackles for loss and posted five tackles overall in his CU debut.
The duo spearheaded an impressive debut for Eliot's revamped defense. One week after Carta-Samuels set a CSU record with 537 passing yards during the Rams' season-opening loss against Hawaii, the Rams couldn't get anything going against CU. The Rams' 19 completions accounted for just 181 yards, and a Buffs team that struggled to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year was credited with two sacks and six quarterback hurries.