Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis hosted Big Ten Media Days in July and will welcome in the NFL scouting combine come March. While at the conference’s event, P.J. Fleck looked forward to the league’s showcase.
“Boye Mafe, one of our defensive ends, looking for a big breakout year for him,” the Gophers head coach said. “That’s an absolute freak when you talk about vertical jump, size, weight, speed. He’s going to come to this stadium one day probably after this year and just blow the combine out of the water. He’s going to be one of those guys (to) put up all types of numbers. Now we’re looking forward to that breakout season, and I know he is, too.”
But through two games this season, Mafe, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Hopkins High School graduate, had no sacks, one quarterback hit and three total pressures, against Ohio State and Miami (Ohio), according to Pro Football Focus. Outside of their best D-lineman, no Gopher had a sack across the first two games.
Mafe found himself mentioned by Fleck in a much different way back in Minnesota. “Boye didn’t play exactly his greatest over his first two games,” Fleck said on his KFAN radio show Tuesday. “It was well documented in our team meetings on those Sundays.”
Mafe started the opening two games, but Thomas Rush got the nod over Mafe in Minnesota’s 30-0 victory over Colorado last Saturday. But both Rush and Mafe stood out in Minnesota’s dominating defensive outing. Rush had two sacks and two hurries, and Mafe had two sacks and a quarterback hit.
Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said there was a two-part message to Mafe after the first two games. It’s was about accountability and care.
“It’s not where it needs to be, but we believe in you,” Rossi said of the message. “It’s very simple. … He still responded, which was great to see. He came out and played his best game and helped us win a football game.”
The Gophers were quick to point out how after Rush got to Buffaloes quarterback Brenden Lewis on a pair of twist-under stunts, Mafe immediately went to celebrate with his teammate and direct competition for the one spot on their base defense. They have played alongside each other in a pass-rushing front.
After the victory, the Gophers had a picture of the Mafe-Rush celebration as their primary social-media post.
“A lot of times in life you can see people be upset or disgruntled,” Rossi said about how Mafe could have responded. “When Rush gets his sack, he had two of them. The (second) in particular, the first guy to go over there and celebrate was Boye, which is awesome. I think they made each other better and they will make each other better throughout the season. We were very pleased with his response and we need to continue to see it. Our defense needs it, and our team needs it.”
Through three games, Rush has a team-high 11 pressures, including nine hurries, per PFF. It’s a level of production Minnesota didn’t see out of Rush last season, his first year after switching positions from middle linebacker. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he had to make that change in a year without spring practice due to the pandemic, and he missed time during the shortened preseason camp a year ago.
“You feel as a defensive staff that we were going to see a real jump for him, maybe more so than the normal jump because he didn’t get some of the time,” Rossi said. “I think we are starting to see it. Again, I think he has a very high ceiling. There is a lot of room to grow. You are starting to see the pass-rush part of it click. He’s playing physical. He’s playing hard. So we are pleased with him and think he has more room to grow as well.”
Postgame, Rush put his sacks in a team perspective as well because going into the game, the Buffaloes QB was a threat to run. But the Gophers bottled him up.
“We really wanted to emphasize this week a D-line rushing together,” Rush said. “Keeping our lane integrity and being together and working together to make sure we are on our points and nobody is doing their own thing. That is ultimately what we are getting at. If we are getting the sacks, we are going to get them together.”