For three months, Mustafa Johnson was unable to use the exceptional workout facilities at the University of Colorado.
The Buffaloes’ 6-foot-2, 290-pound senior defensive lineman wasn’t going to let the coronavirus pandemic stop his progress, though.
“I miss (football) a lot,” he said. “I miss the whole hitting aspect, but I really haven’t skipped a beat (in workouts). I’ve been running and doing all my training, even with all this COVID that’s going on.”
While concerns about the spread of COVID-19 canceled spring practices and forced Johnson and athletes around the country to work out on their own, the Buffs are still scheduled to begin their season on Sept. 5 at Colorado State. Voluntary workouts at CU began on June 15 and the NCAA Division I Council has approved a plan that allows preseason camp to begin Aug. 7.
If practices and games are held, Johnson plans to be ready.
A former junior college transfer, Johnson had an exceptional first season with the Buffs, in 2018. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors from the Associated Press after leading the conference with 8.5 sacks, leading the Buffs with 18 tackles for loss and racking up 73 tackles. In the past 22 seasons, no CU defensive lineman has had more tackles in a season.
Last year, an ankle injury limited him to nine games and fewer than 20 snaps in two other games. He finished with 34 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
In preparing for his senior season, Johnson said he feels 100 percent healthy.
“I’ve been out running and playing basketball and doing all kinds of stuff,” he said. “I’m good now.”
The Buffs need him to be, although he’s not carrying the load by himself.
Johnson, end Terrance Lang and nose tackle Jalen Sami are all returning starters in the Buffs’ 3-4 base defense. In fact, every defensive lineman who got on the field in 2019 is back, including key backups Janaz Jordan, Na’im Rodman and Austin Williams.
It’s quite a change from a year ago when Johnson and Lang were the only linemen with much experience.
“We’ve got depth,” Johnson said. “That’s the biggest thing is that now that we have guys that were able to come in and like play and get that experience, there’s less worry and less strain of, ‘Oh, I have to play every snap.’ … We feel that we have guys that have done it and been there before, instead of having a room full of six freshmen that have never played before and four upper classmen. I played my sophomore year and did pretty good, so I’m confident they can do it, too.”
New defensive line coach Chris Wilson hasn’t had a chance to work with the players on the field, but believes it’s a good group.
“We’ve got some good athletes, we’ve got some good size,” he said. “Guys who have some experience, guys with some versatility and that’s what is really important in this day and age: guys who can play three downs.”
Johnson can certainly play every down, as he’s one of the top defensive linemen in the Pac-12, despite being listed at just 6-foot-2.
“When you aren’t, say 6-4, 6-5 at that position, you have to have other dominant traits,” Wilson said. “He’s got some traits that I think will bode well for some of the things that we’re going to do this year. Compared to the last year, I think it will accentuate the things that he does really, really well. And that’s my goal as a teacher is to make sure I’m doing what they do really, really well.
“I feel good about the guys we have. Obviously we’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’m optimistic – very optimistic – about Mustafa, as well as quite a few guys there.”
Johnson said Wilson is teaching “very different” technique than previous defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, so there will be an adjustment, but he’s done it before. Wilson is Johnson’s fourth position coach in four college seasons.
“It’s just going to be a different technique that I’m going to have to learn, which I’m not really worried about it,” he said. “It’s expanding my game a little bit to whatever is going to fit the scheme.”
For Johnson, whatever it takes to be ready, he’ll do it. He’s got aspirations of not only helping CU have a successful season, but of playing in the NFL, and this is a big year for him.
“I’m real excited to get back because I know this is my season I have to take control of and I know that I have to show out like I’ve done before,” he said. “I know it’s all on the line for me right now. I’m really excited for that. I love the pressure of it. I’m ready to go.”