For Mustafa Johnson and the Buffs, intensity and physicality are key in spring practice

Defensive linemen Israel Antwine and Mustafa Johnson sack New Hampshire quarterback Christian Lupoli during the third quarter of play at Folsom Field. Sept. 15, 2018. (Nigel Amstock/CU Independent)

The overarching goal of spring practice this year for the Colorado Buffaloes football team is to turn up the intensity and physicality.

Junior defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson talked about how the new coaching staff — led by former Georgia defensive coordinator and current Colorado head coach Mel Tucker — is trying to change the culture of CU football.

When asked the biggest difference from last year’s culture to this year’s during the Buffs’ spring practice, Johnson pointed to the changing energy.

“Intensity,” Johnson said of the first few practices. “[The coaches] are trying to change the culture for us. They’re trying to make us more physical, hitting, just out-tough every single team. You can see that they’re doing that through drill after drill. They are just trying to make us harder guys, tougher in all aspects of the game.”

Johnson went on to talk about how the new coaching staff has put an emphasis on being more physical and intense on both sides of the ball.

“[Coach Tucker] emphasizes it all the time, the whole staff emphasizes it,” Johnson said. “Everybody is on board with the plan, that’s what ‘Relentless’ is. Not just doing it in the first quarter, doing it in the fourth quarter, playing physical all game.”

“Relentless” is the word used by Tucker to describe the culture of what he wants Colorado football to be. He even had t-shirts made with “Relentless” printed in bold lettering on the front. Tucker and many of his players can often be seen wearing the shirts on a day-to-day basis — a simple reminder to his players of his cultural message to them.

Being a former defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia, a program which he helped lead to the SEC Championship last season, Tucker brings a strong defensive understanding. It’s something Colorado needs more of after finishing ninth in the Pac-12 in points allowed per game last season.

Johnson talked about what his new head coach brings to the table from a defensive standpoint.

“[He brings] a lot of knowledge,” Johnson said. “He’s always standing on our side and making sure that he is stepping in coaching and doing a lot of things. That means a lot when it’s your head coach coming in, stepping in and saying stuff, helping you out. Not to downplay any of the other coaches, but it’s different coming from the head coach, so I think that is a wonderful thing that’s going on.”

Johnson also pointed out a difference in energy and hustle that this coaching staff has emphasized so far this spring.

“We’re focused on hustling, hustle to the ball all the time,” he said. “For the D-line, they’re having us run 20 yards down the field every time, even though the ball might be down. And the third [point of emphasis] is probably making plays, like capitalizing on all the plays we get the opportunity to play on.”

The coaching staff has put a lot of emphasis on taking advantage of every single play. Defensively, that means extra emphasis on creating turnovers.

“Picks, fumbles, forcing them, creating turnovers — all that,” Johnson said.

For the upcoming 2019 season, success for the football team will come in the form of significant improvement from last year, where the Buffs lost seven straight to finish the season.

Johnson talked about what would make this season a successful one for Colorado.

“Obviously, a better record than last year,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “But we are trying to go to a bowl game. Obviously, every team is looking for the championship, so that’s in mind also, but it’s important to just take it step by step, game by game.”

Individually, Johnson said he hopes to improve his pass-rush skills to expand his game.

“I’m doing a lot more pass-rush stuff,” Johnson said. “I’m pretty solid in the run game. I’m obviously trying to get better, but I want to create more sacks, create more negative plays. Last year I had eight sacks, I want to improve that; [and] I had about 20 tackles for loss, I want to improve all that. So, creating negative plays that’s what I want to improve on.”

Johnson, who actually had 18 tackles for loss, talked about the everyday grind of spring training, and he mentioned that if you don’t bring energy, it’s going to be a long day.

“You got to bring energy,” Johnson said. “That is the only way you are going to make it through these practices, because [the coaches] are yelling and hollering at you, and if you are just sitting there moping around, it’s going to be a long day for you. If you bring energy and a good attitude, it is going to be a good day.”

The emphasis for this year is on intensity, physicality and improvement from last season. From a defensive standpoint, that means much more energy and activity, which is something this new coaching staff is highlighting. Johnson said it is all about making plays and cleaning up fundamental mistakes.

“I would just say making plays on balls — that’s all it is — securing tackles,” Johnson said. “We had a few games where we missed a lot of tackles, things like that. We’re emphasizing finishing tackles, hard thud, wrapping up; and for our [defensive backs], making plays on balls, batting them down, good technique, things like that.”

Cleaning up mistakes and practicing good, solid fundamentals is the focus for the Buffs defensively. Being more aggressive and bringing more intensity is something players and coaches have to practice on a daily basis in order to change the culture of Colorado football before the new season begins in.

Under coach Tucker, let the “Relentless” era begin.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Adam Bender at adbe1149@colorado.edu and follow him on Twitter @adamwbender.

Adam Bender

ADAM IS A SOPHOMORE AT UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO STUDYING STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION. HE IS A STAFF WRITER FOR THE CU INDEPENDENT. ADAM ENJOYS SKIING AND GRAPHIC DESIGN IN HIS FREE TIME.

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