Mustafa Johnson knows he doesn’t have the prototypical size that the NFL is looking for in defensive linemen.
Many of the top line prospects in this year’s draft class are between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6, with many of them north of 300 pounds.
Johnson, a former Colorado star, measured at 6-feet, 280 pounds during the Buffs’ annual pro timing day on Monday.
“What I lack in size I make up for in versatility and how I play,” Johnson said. “I don’t play small. I play big.”
The most dominant defensive lineman at CU in recent years, Johnson, a former junior college transfer, racked up 30 tackles for loss and 16 sacks in 27 career games with the Buffs.
Despite playing less than two-and-a-half years worth of games with the Buffs – in large part because of the COVID-19 pandemic shortening the 2020 season – Johnson ranks top 20 in CU history in tackles for loss and top 15 in sacks.
Now, he’s hoping that NFL scouts look at his productivity, rather than his height. Along with former CU offensive lineman William Sherman, Johnson had a chance to work out in front of scouts from 23 NFL teams on Monday, with the hope of hearing his name called during the draft, April 29-May 1.
Johnson and all seniors were granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Johnson gave some thought to coming back, but decided it was time to pursue his dream.
“How things played out and with the past seasons that I’ve had, I kind of just came to the realization where, I’m like, ‘Alright, I think my time at Colorado is up. I’ve shown what I can do,’” Johnson said. “It kind of just came down to taking that risk, taking that step of it doesn’t matter if it’s a COVID year. … I’m ready.”
Since playing his last game with the Buffs, against Texas on Dec. 29 in the Alamo Bowl, Johnson has lost about 12 pounds, going from about 292 to 280. He said he lost some fat and gained two pounds of muscle.
Johnson, who wants to get to 285-290, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald. The three-time NFL defensive player of the year is about the same size as Johnson, at 6-1, 285.
“The ideal end goal would be, I know you guys have seen Aaron Donald with his shirt off, a big muscular block,” Johnson said. “That would be like the end goal and what I’ll be trying to work towards, being just lean muscle.”
Johnson has proven his strength and play-making ability at CU and believes he can be a productive NFL player.
“With my versatility, it allows me to play from an interior defensive lineman to an edge rusher depending on what scheme I fit into,” he said. “I don’t really like to listen to the noise of, ‘You’re too small and this-and-that,’ because I don’t believe in that.”
Johnson has been too focused on his NFL goal to worry about whether he fits a mold.
During his time at CU, he played for three different line coaches in three years. Count his time at Modesto Junior College and it’s been four position coaches in four years. He believes that will help him at the next level.
“All you have to do is adapt and overcome it, make the best of the situation,” he said. “It definitely helped me out with learning new spots. … It definitely showed that I could play in multiple schemes and be successful in it.”
From the time he started playing football, Johnson has had a goal of reaching the NFL. He’s on the verge of his goal because he followed the advice that he now gives to younger players hoping to play on a big stage.
“I would probably tell them to come with a competitive edge and then (to realize) they’re here for a reason,” Johnson said. “Some dudes come in a little frightened or scared of what’s gonna happen or anything like that, but definitely, coming out of a JUCO, I kind of had this, ‘I can play with these guys.’ I had that in the back of my head.”
He will take that attitude into his pursuit of an NFL career.
“I’m here for a reason and I need to show why I’m here,” he said.