True freshman Diabate helps lead in UF shutout

Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate (11) celebrates making a sack Saturday against Vanderbilt at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

With one of Florida’s key starters sidelined Saturday for the 56-0 win over Vanderbilt, the Gators and coach Dan Mullen called on No. 11 to step up.

Yet this time it wasn’t quarterback Kyle Trask stepping in for Feleipe Franks, as he’s done since Franks’ season-ending injury against Kentucky, but rather true freshman Mohamoud Diabate. 

The native out of Auburn, Alabama, started against the Commodores in place of the injured Jabari Zuniga, whose ankle will require evaluation in the offseason, and Jeremiah Moon, and the 6-foot-2 pass-rusher did more than simply handle his business. 

“I always felt like I had the talent. I just had to mature and get the opportunity to do so,” said Diabate. “So, when the time came – I talked to Moon last night – I told him I was going to take care of it.”

Diabate recorded a sack in each of the first three quarters Saturday, giving him half of UF’s six sacks on the day, with his final one resulting in Jon Greenard’s 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

In a game where freshmen often go from dominating at the high school level to developing at the collegiate level, Diabate showed the poise of an upperclassmen. There had been glimpses of greatness from the freshman, yes, yet it hadn’t translated into production — until Saturday.

“He had three sacks. That’s a pretty good day, right?,” Mullen asked rhetorically. “When you’re talking next-guy up mentality, OK, we’ve done that all year. I know we play a lot of young guys, we try to rotate a lot of guys, like I want to do. We played a lot of guys today, we played them early, which was one thing I want to make sure (of was that) we got guys into the flow of the game right away and we were able to do that both offensively and defensively, and I think it paid off for us as the game went on.”

For Diabate, the season’s preparation culminated in Saturday’s showing, considering he’s played in all seven SEC contests; in the aftermath, it would have been easy to take the credit rightfully bestowed upon him, yet Diabate could only credit his teammates and UF’s coaching staff. 

“I feel like coach (Todd) Grantham called a great game, the rest of my teammates, the (secondary) had great coverage and Greenard off the other side,” Diabate said. “All that stuff helped me do what I was able to do.”

But Grantham wasn’t the one personally charged with getting to Vanderbilt quarterback Deuce Wallace, and his teammates seemingly weren’t creating pressure at Diabate’s rate. 

That strip-sack not only gave Greenard the first touchdown of his career, it also prevented the Commodores’ best scoring opportunity, ultimately allowing UF to secure its third shutout of the 2019 campaign. 

“I was like, ‘Man, we got to find a way to make sure they don’t score because we want to shut them out.’ So, I was like, ‘Man, let me see if I can get a sack to get them out of field-goal range’,” he said. “I wasn’t really thinking about a strip-sack, but then, when I came off the end, he wasn’t looking – you know, he’s a right-handed quarterback, so I was on his blindside. So, I was just like, ‘Let me take a swipe at it.’ I just thought I’d sacked him, and then I looked up and saw Jon running, and I was like, ‘Wow.’”

Considering Zuniga’s impact remains to be seen, and the Gators will also be without linebacker Jeremiah Moon for the rest of the season, and it’s clear why Diabate’s performance was critical for assuaging fears regarding UF’s pass rush. Now the Gators, and Diabate, will hope his breakout performance becomes a consistent presence among UF’s defensive line. 

“I feel like we’re doing what we need to be doing in practice, following what coach Mullen said — we had great intensity in practice. I feel like that showed when we came on the field today,” Diabate said. “I think if you look at the (fact)  they didn’t score – I feel like we got our edge back. We played the way that we expect to play.”