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BOULDER, Colo. — There’s a large picture on the wall on the third floor of the Champions Center, the University of Colorado’s football facility, that displays a snapshot of one of the top highlights of the Buffaloes’ 2018 season.
On one side of the action shot is high-energy defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson defeating a Nebraska tackle’s block. On the other is linebacker Nate Landman knifing into the backfield to make a fourth-down tackle for loss in the fourth quarter of a 33-28 Colorado victory.
“I love looking at it because it reminds me of how we felt when we made that big play,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports recently. “It was a sweet play. It was a big-time stop.”
It also would be the final road victory of the season for the Buffaloes. A season that started out with so much promise during a 5-0 run but ended with seven straight losses — many of them close late. Head coach Mike MacIntyre was let go at season’s end.
Despite the Buffaloes returning standouts on both sides of the ball, including Johnson and Landman on defense, and wideout Laviska Shenault Jr. and QB Steven Montez, they are being picked last in the Pac-12 South division under new head coach Mel Tucker.
“I don’t pay much attention to it,” Johnson said of his team’s projections after a recent practice. “I definitely have high hopes. We definitely have the coaching staff to lead us to where we want to go. It’s now on us to go out there and get it done.”
Tucker arrives with a reputation as a strong defensive teacher and leader, having spent seven years as an NFL defensive coordinator and the past three in that position at the University of Georgia, owners of top-20 scoring defenses the past two seasons.
Despite having an area of expertise in the secondary, Tucker knows he has something special in Johnson, who made a name for himself in his debut season for the Buffaloes in 2018.
“Nate Landman and Mustafa Johnson, those are my tone setters on defense,” Tucker told Yahoo Sports. “Not the tallest guy, but [Johnson is] that stocky guy with a really good motor. He’s a great run defender and enough initial quickness, [is] fluid in his hips and is violent with his hands. He’s also smart, which makes him a good inside rusher.”
How Mustafa Johnson is trying to mimic Aaron Donald
Johnson arrived on campus prior to last season and made an immediate impact after spending one semester at Modesto Junior College. He’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 290 pounds — hardly ideal size and length for an interior player — but earned all-Pac-12 Honorable Mention with 8.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and several eye-opening plays.
A broken fibula set him back in the spring, but Johnson didn’t need surgery on his leg, was all systems go at the start of training camp and has been a frequent first-team all-conference pick this preseason.
Now the rising junior, who attended junior college after receiving little to no recruiting attention out of high school, is starting to pop up on NFL scouts’ radars as well.
“But I am blocking most of that out because I know if I don’t repeat or better what I did last year, all of that doesn’t mean anything,” Johnson said. “It’s all just talk right now.”
Johnson’s size falls short of some typical NFL thresholds for an interior defensive lineman, but the highly active defender is still sometimes compared to one of the elite pro players at any position.
“I was going to say Aaron Donald,” Tucker said with a laugh when asked who Johnson reminds him of, “but I can’t say Aaron Donald.”
Johnson is fine with the mention, naturally, even while he admits that the two are on different stratospheres until further notice.
“A lot of people watch Aaron Donald, but I have a real reason for it,” Johnson said. “Height and weight [wise], we’re about the same. He uses his hands to rush. That’s how I play — I try to keep guys’ hands off of me.
“Obviously, he’s way more explosive and faster and all that. But I’d like to think that could come with years of training. I hope at some point I can get to that level. But yeah, his 285 [pounds] look completely different than my 285. A six-pack at 285? Whew.”
That’s not Johnson and it might never be. But there’s a place for a highly active disruptor who was on the field for 77 percent of the Buffaloes’ defensive snaps a year ago, playing outside (typically as a 4-, 4i- or 5-technique rusher in CU’s three-man front a year ago) and inside, kicking down to play nose tackle on occasion. He even stood up on a few snaps and lined up as a rush end (outside the tackle) in spots.
High expectations for Johnson in 2019
Johnson said the plan under Tucker and defensive coordinator Tyson Summers will be the same: to move him around plenty.
“I’ve been working at every spot along the line,” Johnson said.
Summers even gave Johnson a test the moment after they first met this spring.
“He said, ‘You’re at a job interview. What are the three qualities you’re going to tell them you have to get the job?’” Johnson said.
Johnson didn’t recall his exact answers to his coach. But he said he wanted to be known as accountable above all else. And Johnson has set his individual goals this season quite high.
“I want to have 10-plus sacks instead of 8.5,” he said. “I want to improve on my TFL [tackles for loss] numbers, too; I thought my [18 TFLs in 2018] were pretty good, but I looked up the school record this summer [24 by Bill Brundige in 1969] and want to beat that. I now am shooting for 24-plus.”
Johnson also wants to diversify his pass-rush arsenal, but not at the risk of losing some go-to moves.
“What I’ve always been taught is that it’s good to have your primary move,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to have too many tools in the toolbox. I have my two or three primary moves that are my go-to moves, and it varies game to game.
“I go back and look at the tape and see how they set, how they block, and I say, OK, I am going to work on the pull slide series for this next game as my primary. Secondary is going to be club-rip. So it changes game to game.”
Johnson likes to watch Donald as a model of how to maximize leverage for a shorter player. When asked if he’s really 6-2, Johnson smiles and says, “close to that.” But he likes that there’s already a dominant NFL star who can show him a path to success, even if Johnson might never possess Donald’s elite athleticism. Then again, there are few defensive tackles on the planet who can.
“There are some games where [Donald is] struggling and teams are keying in on him, but he just finds a way to make it happen,” Johnson said. “He’s going to chase the ball and be around the ball almost every time. He makes plays he technically shouldn’t even be making.
“That right there is what I am trying to become.”
A more realistic NFL comp for Johnson
Tucker actually dialed back his comp to a more realistic level for Johnson, but it was still a former top-10 pick whom Tucker coached with the Jacksonville Jaguars who has gone on to play all but three games over his nine seasons in the league.
“Tyson Alualu might be the closest [comparison to Johnson],” Tucker said. “Tyson was a really stocky, low-to-the-ground guy, just like Mustafa. ... What I remember of Alualu is that he was very consistent. You knew what you were going to get from [him] every game. It might not have been flashy, but you were going to get from him game in and game out.”
Johnson and his mother left Colorado to follow his older brother in California early in Johnson’s high school days, where he played linebacker defensive end and tight end at Turlock High. But Johnson failed to garner much in the way of FBS recruiting attention, so he decided — despite being a good student — to go the juco route for a year.
The plan worked, adding 30 pounds to his frame before his freshman year at Modesto and earning first-team Valley League honors with 6.5 sacks (second in the conference). Johnson suddenly had coaches from big schools knocking on his door, including a late push by Alabama, but he stuck with a commitment he made to the Buffs.
Johnson could spend two more years at CU and be a member of the 2021 NFL draft class — and he understands that NFL scouts who are suddenly doing work on him are going to question his lack of length. The list of defensive linemen with similar statures who became high draft picks in the past decade isn’t long; it includes Donald and Alualu, along with first-rounders Ed Oliver (ninth overall, 2019) and Sheldon Rankins (12th overall, 2016), but doesn’t extend far beyond that. He knows there’s only so much he can do about that.
“I actually don’t mind it,” Johnson said. “Sometimes my teammates joke around and call me short. But at the end of the day, I am going to play and do what I need to do to get the job done. I might not be the longest guy, but I am compact and explosive. I know how to work with what I’ve got.
“I know I can’t get any taller. But I work on maximizing my leverage and try to develop pass-rush moves that are going to work best with my height. I am a leverage player for sure.”
His aim this season is to tee off on the slew of talented runners and quarterbacks — including Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Stanford’s K.J. Costello and Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez — that dot Colorado’s schedule this season and let the rest take care of itself.
“I definitely have high hopes for the team and for me,” he said. “We definitely have the coaching staff to lead us to where we want to go. It’s now on us as players to go out there and get it done.
“If I do what I know I can do as a player, and everyone else does the same, we’ll be in good shape. I just want to be a tone setter and get better with each game.”
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