Mustafa Johnson made a big impact on the field during his first season with the Colorado football team last year. This year Johnson was ready to take on a bigger role off the field, specifically as one of the leaders of a young Buffaloes defense.
Even though it only was a few games, Johnson wasn’t ready to have that off-the-field role be his only contribution to the Buffs for any length of time. That brief relegation to the sideline ended last week, when Johnson returned to the lineup following a two-week layoff due to an ankle injury. The junior defensive end expects to be even closer to 100 percent when the Buffs attempt to end their three-game losing streak at Folsom Field on Friday night against USC (7 p.m., ESPN2).
“It’s very frustrating, just losing in general,” Johnson said. “It’s part of the game, there’s lots of injuries. All I could do is just sit there and support my teammates. Coach up the young guys, what they’re doing right and wrong. And try to make an impact that way. Because I’m still part of this team and I want to help.”
“After the tough loss against Oregon (on Oct. 11) I had to keep the troops rallied. Even in the Arizona State game when I went down, I came right back out and kept talking to the players. Keeping their head in the game, just letting them know I’m here for them and they need to get the job done.”
Johnson was injured early during the Buffs’ win at Arizona State Sept. 21 and missed the next two games, a home loss against Arizona and a 42-point thumping at Oregon. In his return last week, Johnson played just 17 snaps at Washington State, by far his lowest total for a full game this season, and was credited with one tackle.
With injuries and roster defections making an already young and inexperienced CU defense even more green — safety Aaron Maddox and linebacker Jacob Callier left the team earlier this week — Johnson’s presence has become even more critical for the Buffs, even if that ankle isn’t quite yet at 100 percent.
“He really has grown in that aspect. I watch him on the sidelines, I listen to him and he’s always coaching the young guys and that’s what’s good,” CU defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said. “He’s a natural leader. There’s leaders and then there’s guys, he’s natural, because he hasn’t really had anybody in front of him to teach him that. Some guys have that ability to be able to do that and he’s one of those guys. He’s really helped on the sideline.
“And I told him that when I got hurt back in college my coach took me to the side. And I actually had to coach one side of the line and it helped me learn the game. And I see those little innate abilities in him to be able to go and do those things.”
The suddenly accelerated youth movement has affected Johnson’s linemates up front as well. Nose tackle Jalen Sami, a redshirt freshman, missed the Washington State game due to a knee injury that also limited him the previous two games. Sami’s backup, true freshman Austin Williams, has seen his playing time increase the past three weeks. True freshman Na’im Rodman has logged at least 40 defensive snaps in each of the past four games.
Up front Johnson, in only his second year of Division I football, and third-year sophomore Terrance Lang count as graybeards. Like the youngsters in the secondary, they will be counted on to grow up in a hurry if a defensive unit that has allowed 86 points the past two games and is surrendering a Pac-12-worst 482.4 yards per game hopes to make strides over the final five games of the season.
“We’re very aware (CU has never beaten USC). But we haven’t really talked about it because we’re taking it game by game,” Johnson said. “That’s in the past. We’re in a new season, new game. We’ll see what happens.”
Staff writer Brian Howell contributed to this report.