In just a few months last year, Mustafa Johnson went from hoping to earn a starting job to becoming one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the Pac-12.
Coming off a stellar first season with the Colorado football team, Johnson has focused mainly on the plays he didn't make, however.
"Even though I did end up with 8.5 sacks, I missed a lot of opportunities," Johnson said. "I basically need to capitalize on all the opportunities that come my way."
Johnson, who came to CU as a transfer from Modesto (Calif.) Junior College, earned a starting job at right defensive end in fall camp and wound up with 73 tackles while leading the Buffs in sacks, tackles for loss (17.5) and quarterback pressures (16).
The 6-foot2, 290-pound junior knows he can do more, though, and believes that having experience and watching film is going to help his instincts on the field.
"There were a couple one-on-ones and, being a defensive lineman, I'm expected to win that," he said. "During the game, my eyes were bad (at times) and I felt it as something different. My ability to feel what's going on and know what's going on (is important) to transition into a pass rusher or transition and play the run.
"I'm hoping it'll be a lot better (next season). The experience taught me a lot with some of the situations and I'm also learning more because I have more time now. There's a lot of knowledge coming my way and I have to take it in and really work with it."
In trying to take his game to another level, Johnson is adjusting to a lot of change around him.
CU not only has a new head coach in Mel Tucker, but a new defensive line coach (Jimmy Brumbaugh) and a whole lot of turnover within the line.
Of the seven defensive linemen who played significant snaps last year, only Johnson and sophomore Terrance Lang are slated to return. Starting nose tackle Javier Edwards and key reserves Jase Franke and Chris Mulumba all graduated; end Israel Antwine transferred to Oklahoma State; and Lyle Tuiloma, who would be a senior year in the fall, has decided to finish his degree and not play next season according to multiple sources.
Tucker and his staff have put a heavy emphasis on defensive line recruiting this offseason, adding junior college transfers Jeremiah Doss and Janaz Jordan and four high school recruits. The four prep recruits — Lloyd Murray Jr., Na'im Rodman, Jayden Simon and Austin Williams — weigh an average of 309 pounds.
"We have to emphasize D-line because we were thin last year, and with some of the people that left, we're thin again, if not thinner because we don't have people that are experienced to come in and play," Johnson said.
With the newcomers, along with junior Terriek Roberts and redshirt freshmen Tava Finau and Jalen Sami, the Buffs have plenty of bodies up front, and Johnson is excited about the potential of the group.
"I'm excited, because I know I was doing really well during the season, but come games 6-7-8, I could feel the wear and tear on my body," he said. "I had to fight through it, but I noticed I wasn't able to do some of the stuff I was able to do early on in the season. It's going to help us out a lot; a lot of depth will keep us fresh."
Johnson has yet to see his new teammates on the field, but said he's eager to watch the continued development of Sami and others who are coming back. He also praised Lang, who played more as the 2018 season went along and flashed his ability to wreak havoc.
"He got a lot better as the season progressed," Johnson said. "He made a lot of great moves; it just comes down to finishing. Some of my sacks are credited to him; he forced the pocket and made it come my way. He definitely got better as the season progressed."
An improved Lang and the potential of the newcomers makes the defensive line an intriguing position for the Buffs next season, but it all starts with Johnson. He's now the veteran of the group and hopes he can be a good example to his teammates.
"I'm going to go out there and work hard and do what I do," he said.