Mustafa Johnson always knew he would be going to the NFL. In his mind, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
Now he knows.
“It’s my time,” Colorado’s standout defensive end told BuffZone.
On Friday, Johnson announced that he will forgo his final year of eligibility with the Buffaloes and enter the NFL Draft, scheduled for April 29-May 1.
Although he was a senior this season, Johnson could have come back to CU for the 2021 campaign because the NCAA granted all players an extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson, who turns 22 on Feb. 16, seriously considered a return, but decided to pursue his dream.
“It just came down to this is the best option for me,” Johnson said. “I’ve been thinking about it, obviously, since the season ended. I had it in mind already. I just wanted to play in the bowl game and see how things went out. Then I just started weighing pros and cons of how this year went for me, what I’ve already done. It came down to opportunity. I don’t want to risk injury for another year. All those different things, really.”
Johnson has signed with agent Walter Musgrove of the Musgrove Agency, which also represents former Buffs’ receiver Laviska Shenault.
Johnson hopes to become just the second CU defensive lineman drafted since 2007, joining Jordan Carrell, a seventh-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2017. Johnson said he believes he could be a late-round selection in the draft.
“I didn’t want to leave unless it was early rounds, but then just seeing how things are progressing, it’s time,” he said.
Johnson is the second CU player to declare for the draft this winter, joining left tackle Will Sherman, who was a junior this season and is passing up two more years of eligibility.
A 6-foot-2, 290-pound defensive end, Johnson was named second-team All-Pac-12 by coaches and media this season. He recorded 21 tackles, two sacks and six tackles for loss during the five-game regular season for the Buffs (4-2), while adding three tackles and a sack against Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
In 2018, Johnson was first-team All-Pac-12 when, in his first year as a Buff, he started all 12 games and compiled 73 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hurries. His 73 tackles that season are the most by a CU defensive lineman since 1997, while his 18 TFLs are the most by any CU player since 1993.
A starter in all 27 games he played at CU, Johnson is tied for 14th in program history in career sacks (15) and tied for 20th in career tackles for loss (29).
Johnson was born in Colorado, but moved to California before high school. Despite being a two-time Central California Conference defensive player of the year at Turlock (Calif.) High School, Johnson was lightly recruited as an undersized (250 pounds) lineman.
He chose to attend Modesto Junior College, where he dominated competition and hit a growth spurt, adding 35 pounds. He had 58 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks that season and got noticed by a few schools, including CU. Then-CU head coach Mike MacIntyre and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot recruited him to Boulder.
Although he wasn’t a top-notch recruit out of high school or junior college, Johnson always viewed himself as a potential NFL player and he blossomed quickly at CU with a dominant 2018 season. He had an injury-plagued 2019, but came back strong this year.
“I think what happened last year, it kind of took a hit on my confidence,” he said. “I was a little timid coming back because of the injury, but (going to the NFL) has been my goal since I started playing football, and I’ve been trending in that direction all my life, really.
“Each year, seeing that I can do it, day in and day out, game after game, added on to my confidence that I can do this.”
Johnson consulted CU defensive line coach Chris Wilson, a long-time NFL coach who told Johnson he could play in the league, but also gave him something to think about.
“He was like, ‘I’m confident in you, I think I know you can get the job done (in the NFL),” Johnson said. “But he also talked about how he thinks he has some stuff that he can teach me and I could grow from and go on to develop better as a player. And that kind of actually made it really hard for me, thinking, ‘Dang, maybe I should actually come back and learn these new things, you know?’
“He wasn’t trying to make me choose either way, he just kind of wanted to support me and tell me the facts of what he knows.”
In the end, however, Johnson, who will finish his degree online this semester while training for the draft in Dallas, felt this was the right time for him to make a tough choice.
“It is a hard thing to leave,” he said. “I spent the last three years here dedicating my time, making a lot of friends, meeting new people, learning things. So it is gonna be new, going away from a safe and fun chapter of my life into a new one. It is hard to leave CU.”
He leaves, however, feeling ready for the next challenge.
“I definitely grew as a person (at CU),” he said.