MINNEAPOLIS — From 3-star to “Freak,” Minnesota defensive end Boye Mafe has spent 2020 turning heads — and quarterback torsos into the turf.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pound rush end from Hopkins, Minn., ranks 10th in FBS in sacks per game through three contests and has a team-high 3.5 tackles for loss — all of them sacks. He’s starting to spend consistent time in opposing back fields, too, and has been a producer of what some defensive coordinators call “havoc plays,” including a tipped pass that was intercepted by a teammate against Maryland.

If you’re looking for a bright spot on one of the nation’s worst defenses to date, Mafe is it. And to think the redshirt junior didn’t even crack the starting rotation at the beginning of the season.

“Boye has come a long way, and I think he hasn’t even started to scratch the surface to where he can go,” Golden Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said this week. “Boye is going to be a really good player here, and you’ve got to choose to be a really good player here.”

That’s how it has to work in Dinkytown. In addressing the squad’s defensive struggles, Fleck has described Minnesota as a “developmental program.”

Minnesota doesn’t consistently recruit 4-star and 5-star talent. It is, however, a desirable landing spot for guys like Mafe, an athletically-gifted star from Hopkins High School who the 247 Sports Composite had as a 3-star.

The fact he’s a Minnesota kid is delicious gravy as Thanksgiving approaches.

Mafe always had length, shake and quick-twitch ability. But he’s spent the past 3 years working with head strength and conditioning coach Dan Nichol on amplifying it, and defensive line coach Chad Wilt on harnessing it into usable technique.

Mafe’s 40.5-inch vertical leap, 4.57 40-yard dash time and eye-popping weightlifting max numbers (400-pound power clean, 653-pound squat) landed him at No. 5 on The Athletic college football insider Bruce Feldman’s annual “College Football Freaks” list.

He’s a pretty mature, self-aware guy, too.

“If it’s not needed for me to be the starter that week, then that’s the plan,” the business and marketing education major said. “I trust in Coach Fleck and I trust in the staff.”

And on the big plays he’s made lately, from the tipped interception to 2 sacks and a forced fumble in last Saturday’s win against Illinois: “It’s not just me on a tipped pass; it’s DeAngelo Carter behind me being able to catch that pass. … The biggest thing about (those) impact plays is just us working together.”

You can teach a swim move. You can coach scheme. But you can’t instill that kind of attitude out of nowhere.

A lot of it comes from within.

That’s the type of guy this program needs, especially on a defense that’s had to replace 7 starters. After horrendous performances against Maryland and Michigan, the group looked better against Illinois — with Mafe leading the charge.

He’ll be needed in an even bigger way Saturday with Floyd of Rosedale on the line against Iowa. And for years to come as a blueprint for success as the Gophers seek consistent relevance in the B1G:

Take your time. Spend a couple years putting in the work to become an FBS-level starter. Then seize the opportunity when it finally comes.