After first career INT, Diabate eyes complete defensive performance by Gators

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
After intercepting a pass, Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate dives for extra yardage over Kentucky tight end Keaton Upshaw during the second half Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Florida’s defense has been no stranger to criticism this season, at times regardless of the personnel’s experience level — highly regarded yet still-developing linebackers such as Amari Burney or Mohamoud Diabate have received their share of fault-finding from the outside, with the former admitting early on that improvement was needed. 

With his play over the last several games, Diabate has silenced remaining critics, too. 

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound sophomore out of Auburn, Alabama, hauled in his first collegiate interception and combined for a sack to go along with six tackles in last Saturday’s 34-10 win over Kentucky. 

“I would say it was the easiest and the most difficult one, because it was the first,” Diabate said while speaking to the media Tuesday. “I was really excited I could make the play.”

After playing on the line more as a freshman, Diabate has continued his transition to the BUCK linebacker position this year, and he’s held down the role in recent weeks with Jeremiah Moon continuing to recover from an ankle injury suffered against Georgia. 

In coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense, players are coached to be ready at a moment’s notice, whether it be due to injury or just to simply keep fresh legs. Diabate said Grantham’s defense not only helps Florida’s playmakers to avoid injury — it allows rotating players to go all out when their number is called. 

"It lets you know that you can go hard, and you know you're not gonna be in there for real long. You're not going to be too drained out,” Diabate said. “Coach Grantham and Coach (Dan) Mullen like to keep fresh guys in there so we can go hard and do our job."

In his case, it worked; wherever the play was, it seemed so was Diabate. Whether he was taking the necessary angle on a tackle or sprinting from sideline to sideline, displaying his elite closing speed in the process, Diabate’s athleticism and innate intelligence was apparent. The win over the Wildcats continued a strong stretch as of late for Diabate, as he’s registered more than half of his 38 tackles this season over the last three games. 

It culminated in the second half Saturday as UF held the Wildcats' offense to less than 50 yards and kept Kentucky scoreless over the final 30 minutes of play. 

After Grantham received significant criticism — including from Mullen — for Florida’s start defensively, Diabate put the blame back on the on-field personnel. 

"We just have to listen to our coaches and execute, that's what it just comes down to,” Diabate proclaimed. “Listening to the plan that Coach Grantham puts in front of us and executing it, and we'll all be fine.”

Another opportunity to execute from the opening kickoff comes on the road at Knoxville, Tennessee, where UF’s defense will face the SEC’s No. 13-ranked passing offense and an offensive line that’s allowed 20 sacks through six games this season.

In case there was any lingering doubt, that’s the plan for the Gators: with a chance to clinch a trip to the SEC Championship Game, UF has to play as if it’s vying for the title already. 

“Just like the second half of the Kentucky game looked, but making that for the whole game. So, executing the calls and being in the right place at the right time. The whole, consistent game, from the first snap to the last snap,” Diabate said. “Oh it’s possible, it’s really possible — that’s what Coach Grantham expected out of us. He doesn’t put anything in front of us that we can’t do. He’s putting a task in front of us that we have to step up and handle and I know that me and the rest of the guys will handle. So we’re going to get that done.”

Saturday

Who: No. 5 Florida (7-1) vs. Tennessee (2-5)

When: 3:30 p.m. 

Where: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.

TV: CBS

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850