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Boye Mafe’s athleticism, uncanny pass-rush skills make Gophers star a coveted NFL draft pick

Mafe’s career pass-rush win rate on third-and-4-plus for the Gophers was 26 percent, which was ahead of bona fide early first-round picks Hutchinson (24), Thibodeaux (25) and Walker (11).

NFL: Scouting Combine
Minnesota linebacker Boye Mafe goes through drills during the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine on March 5, 2022, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Kirby Lee / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — Boye Mafe made the podium at the annual “Underwear Olympics” in March.

Like fellow draft prospects, the Gophers’ fifth-year defensive end stripped down to skin-tight workout gear —which has given the NFL Scouting Combine its nickname — and impressed the league’s front-office decision-makers at the event in Indianapolis.

At 6-foot-4 and 261 pounds, Mafe ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash, posted a 38-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot, 5-inch broad jump. These numbers gave him an “elite” RAS score in a database that goes back more than 30 years, according to its analyst Kent Lee Platte.

For years, the Gophers have emphasized Mafe’s off-the-charts athleticism, regularly promoting him for The Athletic’s annual “Freaks List” and waiting for the day the Hopkins product got to shine at the combine.

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Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck said he has spoken with a lot of NFL head coaches in the days leading up to Day 1 of the draft on Thursday. “I think they are all impressed by Boye,” Fleck said Tuesday. “… Everybody knows his combine numbers, which we talked for years. I think I said that four years ago. Whenever he gets a chance to go to the combine, everybody is going to love him.”

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Mafe is considered a fringe first-round pick on Thursday but more likely a second-round selection come Friday. While his testing numbers are great — and his vertical jump actually increased four inches to 42 at Minnesota’s Pro Day in April — it’s his pass-rush skills that will be his meal ticket to the league.

Mafe’s career pass-rush win rate on third-and-4-plus for the Gophers was 26 percent, which was ahead of bona fide early first-round picks Aidan Hutchinson (24), Kayvon Thibodeaux (25) and Travon Walker (11), per Pro Football Focus.

“It’s how explosive he is. It’s his testing numbers. That’s not normal,” said Gophers center John Michael Schmitz, a NFL draft prospect himself in 2023.

Going into 2021, Mafe seemed prime to rewrite the Gophers record books for sacks. But he had only seven sacks last fall, which fell outside the top 10 season-best marks in U history, and his career total of 15 sacks ranks ninth all-time.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Colorado
Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive lineman Thomas Rush (8) and defensive lineman Boye Mafe (34) combine on sack of Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Brendon Lewis (12) in the first quarter of their Sept. 18, 2021, game at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado.
Ron Chenoy / USA Today Sports

Mafe had a slow start last season, going without a sack in the opening two games and then not starting the following four games. The message was clear: Minnesota needed more from Mafe as he stayed in the defensive line rotations.. He responded with five sacks in the next three games and showed himself to be a good teammate when Thomas Rush, who usurped him in the starting lineup, had his own sack at Colorado in Week 3.

For 2021, PFF gave Mafe a 80.9 pass-rush grade but only a 68.2 rush-defense grade. Draft analyst Dane Brugler of the Athletic wrote: “I still have concerns about Mafe as a run defender and why he wasn’t more dominant in college.”

But it’s Mafe’s uncanny pass-rush abilities that will be on his highlight reel during the draft and the subject of praise from his next employer. Former Gophers defensive line coach Chad Wilt was asked by the Pioneer Press last October to single out Mafe’s most-impressive play.

Wilt, who was promoted to Indiana’s defensive coordinator in January, didn’t hesitate in naming Mafe’s sack at Nebraska in 2020. Mafe got past Cornhuskers right tackle Bryce Benhart, a Lakeville native, with a speed rush. And as quarterback Adrian Martinez sensed pressure and stepped up in the pocket, Mafe immediately adjusted toward the line of scrimmage and forced a strip sack for a U takeaway in the 24-17 victory.

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“It was how he flipped his hips and turned the corner like he was in a phone booth,” Wilt recalled.

Mafe recalled getting the green light from defensive coaches before making that disruptive play. “They said, ‘go get ball.’ ‘Alright, if that’s what you said,’ ” Mafe recalled with a laugh. “I really just told myself that I was going to get off this ball as fast as I can. Just let my body flow. It ended up working out for me.”

Mafe’s comment came before the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in December and with the 2021 regular season in the rearview. With that bigger body of work, Mafe recalled a different sack as his most impressive: his one-handed throw-down of Northwestern’s Ryan Hilinski in October. Mafe came off the edge and only got a hand on the Wildcats quarterback, but he went down on contact.

“I didn’t realize I got him,” Mafe recalled. “I was continuing to play and chasing him. Then I realized he was actually down. I didn’t know that happened.”

Mafe said his athleticism can surprises himself. “That is one thing that I noticed about myself is if I let myself freeform and play, (that’s) when I feel my best,” he said. “Sometimes, I don’t realize I’m doing it myself.”

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