Following an offseason of uncertainty and a long reinstatement process, Colorado’s Mustafa Johnson isn’t looking back.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought about it, so it’s a huge sense of relief,” Johnson said this week. “I’m just going out there and doing what I do, really.”
What he does is wreak havoc in the trenches on game day and he’s done just that in his two games since rejoining the Buffs (2-4, 1-2 Pac-12), who visit California (1-5, 0-3) on Saturday in Berkeley, Calif. (1:40 p.m., TV: Pac-12 Network).
“It feels great. No words to describe it,” Johnson said. “It’s just a big rush of adrenaline; a happy, hyped feeling. That’s all there is to it.”
A 6-foot-2, 280-pound defensive lineman, Johnson was a dominant force for the Buffs from 2018-20 and then declared for the NFL Draft in January. He went undrafted and unsigned, however. Johnson and CU then went through the process of applying for a waiver from the NCAA to regain his final year of eligibility.
Reinstated earlier this fall, Johnson had to sit out the first four games but has picked up where he left off since rejoining the lineup on Oct. 2.
“He’s been really instrumental,” CU head coach Karl Dorrell said. “When you have a veteran experience like that, it’s always big. It helps the younger players kind of bring their game forward too, so from a leadership standpoint that’s been really good.”
CU’s active leader in career sacks (15), Johnson was second-team All-Pac-12 last year. He was first-team All-Pac-12 in 2018 and earned honorable mention in 2019.
“He’s always been a strong practice player and really plays hard; gives hard reps,” Dorrell said. “So I think he does a lot of things just by modeling what it should look like. Plus, his experience and savvy helps him too. He made a couple really nice plays last week. I feel like he’s kind of getting in rhythm of playing.”
After an offseason of preparing for the draft and trying to get signed by a pro team, Johnson needed a few weeks to get himself back in football shape by practicing with the Buffs. Two games into his return, he’s starting to feel like his old self.
“I’m definitely back in the groove,” he said. “First game was a little rough just getting back to the tempo and things like that, but last week was a good game to get back in the groove, get the team back in the groove.”
Against Arizona on Saturday, Johnson recorded three tackles, including a tackle for loss and one for zero yards.
Johnson is enjoying his return, in large part because of the depth on the defensive line. The Buffs already had a good rotation up front before he returned.
“It’s definitely (the most depth) since I’ve been here,” Johnson said.
Veterans Janaz Jordan, Terrance Lang and Jalen Sami are also back for the Buffs this year, while sophomore Na’im Rodman has become a key part of the rotation. Third-year freshman Jayden Simon is averaging 10 snaps per game, as well.
Johnson has played 36 and 40 snaps in his two games so far – a significant drop from the 53 snaps he averaged during the previous three years.
“It’s big-time,” Johnson said. “Especially when you have long drives.
“Me and (Rodman) switch drives, depending on if he gets hot, he stays in; if I get hot, I stay in. Me and him have got a really nice, good rotation going. A lot of depth makes the body work wonders, get a breather when you need it. And it’s always good when the next person that comes in is just as good as the first person.”
Heading into the second half of the season, Johnson is hoping to keep the momentum going, not only for himself but for the team.
“(The Arizona game) sets the emphasis for us that we need to create more turnovers,” Johnson said. “We see what happens when you’re creating turnovers or creating negative plays. The whole atmosphere changes.”