CU Buffs’ Mustafa Johnson keeping eyes on the grind

Junior defensive lineman focusing on improvement, not preseason accolades

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado defensive end Mustafa Johnson had a dominant season in 2018, and he’s hoping for better this year.

A year ago, Mustafa Johnson came to Colorado without a lot of hype, but plenty of motivation.

After a sensational debut season with the Buffaloes, the 6-foot-2, 290-pound defensive lineman is receiving a lot of attention, but hasn’t lost any of his motivation.

Relatively unknown as a junior college transfer last year, Johnson is now regarded as one of the top defensive linemen in the Pac-12. He’s earned preseason, first-team all-conference honors by just about every major national publication.

“I’ve seen a couple of them here and there, but I like to focus on the grind,” Johnson, now a junior, said of the preseason accolades. “All that stuff doesn’t really mean anything until I do it and make it show that I earned it and things like that. I have to keep going.”

Enjoying the grind is what got Johnson here in the first place.

At Turlock (Calif.) High School, Johnson was a two-time Central California Conference defensive player of the year, but overlooked in recruiting because he was undersized lineman, at only 250 pounds.

During the second semester of his senior year, his relentless effort in the weight room coincided with a growth spurt and put him at 285 pounds. He then dominated at Modesto Junior College in 2017, turning that into a scholarship offer from CU.

Johnson was CU’s best defensive lineman during the spring of 2018 and then wreaked havoc on opponents throughout last season, racking up 73 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hurries.

Johnson’s performance was a surprise to many, but not to him.

“Not really,” he said. “I’m a ball player. My goal is to come out and perform. That’s what I train to do every year, and that’s what I plan on doing this year. I’m going to keep working, do whatever I can to repeat, if not do better than last year. I’m training and getting ready.”

The first setback of Johnson’s college career came this spring when he fractured his left fibula and had to sit out for a few weeks. Luckily, no surgery was required, and by last month, Johnson was back to running and getting ready.

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado defensive end Mustafa Johnson had 73 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hurries last season.

“I’m going to be good to go for the season and fall camp,” he said. “I just have to get back into shape. That’s the main goal, to get back in shape, regain some strength and muscle back.”

Johnson’s never shied away from working to get himself ready, but his role is certainly different than a year ago. Unproven as a newcomer in 2018, Johnson is now the only CU defensive lineman with much game experience. Of the nine on scholarship, only Johnson and sophomore Terrance Lang – who played 263 snaps in a reserve role – have played in a game with the Buffs.

CU will lean on redshirt freshman Jalen Sami, junior college transfers Jeremiah Doss and Janaz Jordan and a quartet of true freshmen. Knowing what it’s like to be the newcomer, Johnson has reached out to help each of them get acclimated.

“I have no choice,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I have to bring them with me. They’re a part of our team now. We want them to be better and we want them to make us better.

“I’m technically the only experienced returner, so definitely I have to step up into that role with teaching all the freshmen that are coming in and the guys that were here but didn’t necessarily play a lot. I’m excited to step into that role and help my teammates.”

Johnson has quickly grown to love the intense approach of first-year head coach Mel Tucker and line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh. With fall camp less than three weeks ago – the Buffs report July 31 and start practices on Aug. 1 – Johnson can’t wait to get started.

“New team, new coaching staff; let’s get it going,” he said.