FOOTBALL

Grad transfers Daquan Newkirk, Antonio Valentino quickly finding groove with Gators

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
Florida defensive tackle Daquan Newkirk performs a drill during preseason camp at the Gators football practice field.

Florida’s two defensive tackle grad transfers, Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Valentino, have made themselves at home since joining the program in January. 

It’s been a seamless transition for Newkirk, an Orlando native, whose move from Auburn to the Sunshine State was a homecoming of sorts. 

“When Daquan came in, it was almost like he was already supposed to be here,” Gators defensive lineman Gervon Dexter said. “I'm from Polk County, he’s from right there in Orlando, so it’s kind of a familiar area. So when he came in, it was almost like, ‘Dang, this isn’t no new player.’ It was like he was already here.”

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Newkirk said he signed with Auburn out of high school (The First Academy) to team up with several friends he knew from the Orlando area, such as Woody Barrett, Chandler Cox and Tashawn Manning. 

That desire to play with athletes from Florida is what ultimately led him to UF — where there’s a roster full of them — along with new secondary coach Wesley McGriff and a chance to be closer to home. 

McGriff, aka ‘Crime Dawg’, was at Auburn with Newkirk before joining the Gators staff. 

“I love Coach Crime. He’s always a high-energy guy. Every time I came to Coach Crime, it wasn’t about football. He always put those good talks in my head and we just talked about life, honestly. He helped me out with a lot of things,” Newkirk said of his time with McGriff at Auburn. “I entered the portal and he was just like, ‘Hey man, come be a Florida Gator.’ And that's how it went.

Florida's Antonio Valentino will be counted on to clog up the defensive line and make life easier for those lined up behind him.

“I’m here with my brothers now. My family’s only an hour and 30 minutes away. That’s crazy. I think coming here was the best thing I could’ve ever done. And when I got here, I just felt like, ‘Dang, like this is home.’ Like, God has helped me and just, I was ready to go.” 

Adjusting time at UF for Antonio Valentino

The acclimation process from Penn State to Florida wasn’t as smooth for Valentino, who now has his middle name on the back of his jersey instead of his last name, Shelton. But his nickname is “Groovy”, and it hasn’t taken long for the 6-foot-3, 312-pound Valentino to find his groove in Gainesville. 

“With Antonio, it took him a little while to like, adapt to things because he’s from almost the other side of the world,” Dexter said of Valentino, a native of Columbus, Ohio. “It took him a little while to adapt to things and now he's learning, picking up on things and we took them in like a brother.”

Dexter said Valentino is almost like having a second coach in the room and described him as an “old school” type of guy, as did Newkirk. 

“Tone, man, he’s old spirited,” Newkirk said. “Off the field, he’s just an old guy, an old soul, man. But I like playing beside Tone. Tone’s a very fun player to play beside.”

The outgoing personalities of Newkirk and Valentino made it easier for them to be accepted by their new teammates, and Dexter said there wasn’t any animosity from other defensive linemen when they transferred in. 

“I think any time you got older guys in your room, it's always a blessing to learn from them,” Dexter said. “Daquan is like a totally different player than what you see every day, so it’s like, you get to take that. And then you get to take what Antonio has.

“They're older guys, so those type of guys, they have one year left and they'll be gone. So you can take what they got while they’re here and put it into your game. So I feel like when you got older guys in the room, it's always a blessing.” 

Both have been a blessing to Florida’s defense, according to linebacker Mohamoud Diabate. He feels the presence of Newkirk and Valentino — from a physicality and leadership standpoint — was missing at the defensive tackle position in 2020.  

“That’s another thing people don’t realize: We didn’t have the luxury of having them two big boys in front of us last year,” Diabate said. “Me and Ventrell [Miller], [Amari] Burney, Ty’Ron Hopper, when we’re able to flow freely and use our speed to our advantage and not have to work around getting off a block every run, then you guys will see the improvement in our play for sure. I’m very happy our coaches are able to get those two, because they’re going to be a big part of our defense.”

UF transfers with impact

UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham expects Newkirk and Valentino to have an impact similar to Jonathan Greenard, who transferred from Louisville and earned first-team All-SEC with the Gators in 2019 after leading the league in sacks. 

“They’re both high-motor guys, work hard, character, the kind of guys you want,” Grantham said of Newkirk and Valentino. “Then when you get on the field, they both understand block recognition. They both understand where the ball is going, how to press blocks and they both have pass-rush ability. So they’re really understandable from that standpoint. 

“They can play both positions or they can play side by side; that’s kind of how we’ll play them. There’s probably more similarities to them than differences. One came from the Big Ten, one came from the SEC. When you look at how they play blocks, their ability to be physical, their ability to rush the passer, there’s a lot of similarities between the two and I’m certainly glad they’re here.”