By: Neill Woelk, Contributing Editor, CUBUFFS.com
BOULDER — At a position where the competition is wide open, Colorado sophomore defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson is doing his best to separate himself from the pack.
Yes, it's early. The Buffs just finished their fourth spring practice Wednesday. That leaves 11 practices to go this spring before the second spring and summer conditioning sessions kick in — and that is all simply the prelude to fall camp, where starting spots and playing time will truly begin to be decided.
But Johnson, a junior college transfer who enrolled in time for spring ball, isn't wasting time. The powerfully built 6-foot-2, 285-pounder is getting his fair share of snaps with the No. 1 and No. 2 units at a position where the Buffs must make significant improvement, especially in terms of depth.
"So far, so good," Johnson said after Wednesday's practice. "I think I've done pretty good since the pads went on. I've been making some stops, doing some good things. There's a lot of competition and spring is definitely an opportunity for all of us to show what we can do."
There is indeed no shortage of defensive linemen in camp. CU's current roster shows 10 in camp. That includes nose tackles Javier Edwards, Lyle Tuiloma and Jalen Sami; defensive ends Chris Mulumba, Terrance Lang and Terriek Roberts; and four players listed simply as defensive linemen — Johnson, Jase Franke, Mo Bandi and Nico Magri. Add to that two more D-linemen scheduled to report for fall camp, and the competition will no doubt be intense.
Which is, of course, exactly what CU coaches want.
The Buffs struggled last season up front, both from a run-defense standpoint (10th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense) and in pass rushing (11th in the conference in sacks with 19). It is clear the CU staff plans on improving those numbers significantly, which is why they added three D-linemen in the latest recruiting class, along with welcoming grayshirt Sami.
But all of that competition also means a chance to earn playing time right away, one reason Johnson chose Colorado after one year at Modesto Junior College.
"Obviously a chance of playing right away was a big thing," Johnson said. "A lot of coaches said I'd have that chance, but this defense is the defense I just came from playing, and I'm familiar with what we're doing."
One big factor in Johnson's favor is his versatility. When CU announced his signing, head coach Mike MacIntyresaid Johnson could play every position up front. He is already putting that ability on display, lining up as a defensive end in CU's 3-4 alignment, then moving inside when the Buffs play a four-man front.
"He's done some really good things," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "He's a really quick-twitch guy who is fast and explosive. Mustafa has the size to do both — he can play inside and also be a pass rusher."
In his one year at Modesto, Johnson finished with 58 tackles and 6.5 sacks. While he does indeed have the ability to get to the quarterback, he said his preference is playing the run, where is powerful frame and low center of gravity make him tough to move.
"I'm good at holding my gap, maintaining what I need to do," Johnson said. "I'm a run stopper. I'm going to stay in my gap and not get moved. I definitely can rush the passer when I need to and get through there, but first of all, I'm a run stopper."
When he was being recruited out of high school and as a JC player, Johnson was characterized as "undersized" by some because he stands just 6-foot-2.
Johnson just chuckles at that characterization.
"I think I'm a versatile lineman," he said. "I have those quick-twitch fibers that come in handy. If I'm considered an undersized lineman, I have to make up for it in some way and my agility helps with that. I just play in my pads and let that speak for itself."
A native of Colorado — he was born in Aurora — Johnson moved to California just before his freshman year in high school.
The move back has reintroduced him to something he once took for granted — the altitude.
"It tore me up early," he said of conditioning drills. "But practice after practice, I'm slowly getting used to it more and more. Now I'm OK with it, and I know it's going to be an advantage in the long run."