Though last year was Mohammed Diakite's breakout season for Penn football, he's expected to be even more impressive this time around.
After bursting onto the Ivy League football scene last year with three interceptions, a team-high and League-high for a freshman, the second-year defensive back is poised for another campaign to watch.
As the Ancient Eight’s only finalist for the 2018 Jerry Rice Award, given to the Football Championship Subdivision’s Rookie of the Year, Diakite was put in the national spotlight early in his career with the Quakers.
“[Diakite] is a very athletic, smart, committed boundary corner that as a young man has had success against some of the best receivers in the League, and we’re hoping to build on that,” defensive coordinator Bob Benson said.
One of Diakite’s shining moments from last season came on a crisp October day in a game against conference foe Columbia. With Penn up 13-10 late in the fourth quarter and looking for its first Ivy win of the year, the Lions weren’t going down easy, putting together a last-minute push toward the end zone.
However, the rookie starter stepped up when the team needed him most, intercepting Columbia quarterback Josh Bean’s pass deep in Penn territory and returning it 42 yards to kill the danger and ice the game, sending the home crowd at Franklin Field into pandemonium.
Although he was the hero that day, Diakite recalls the moment with humility.
“Everyone says it came down to that play, but our defense really played as one that whole game, and luckily I had the opportunity to make that play,” he said.
Looking to this year, Diakite will have more responsibility on his shoulders after such a strong first-year outing. His play on the field has earned him not only the additional respect of his teammates, but also the coaching staff.
“[Diakite was] pretty outstanding and he made some big plays last year,” coach Ray Priore said. “He’s a year older, a lot more mature, and as a young player, he brings a lot of confidence to this group.”
“Being a young guy, that’s the one thing you worry about, and Mo did his job last year and held down his side very well last year, so I have 100 percent confidence in him,” senior defensive back Tayte Doddy added.
Originally from Northampton, Pa., about an hour north of Philadelphia, Diakite attended The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he starred on the ice as well as the gridiron, lettering in hockey for three years.
But as soon as he arrived at Penn, he knew he belonged on campus.
“I just fell in love with the coaches, with the culture, and being from Pennsylvania, it was close to home,” Diakite said. “And sometimes you take it for granted, but every now and then you look and you’re like ‘Wow, I’m really playing in Franklin Field,’ and I love it,” Diakite said.
A large part of being on the team is the relationships he is able to cultivate with his teammates. Thanks to his starting role, Diakite was used to being around the older players both on and off the field.
“All the [defensive backs] are pretty close-knit,” Doddy said. “Mo especially, he came in and played early last year, so we were able to connect and we established a relationship quickly on the field together.”
Due to another special relationship, one matchup on this year’s Ivy League slate might be a little more personal to Diakite.
When the Red and Blue make their way up to Cambridge, Mass. on Nov. 16 to face Harvard, Diakite will be on the opposite sideline from his brother, freshman defensive back Diassa Diakite.
If the sibling rivalry isn’t enough motivation to play well, Diakite and the Quakers will also be out for revenge after the Crimson’s dominant win at Penn’s Homecoming game last year.
Even though expectations are high for Diakite, he isn’t feeling too nervous. If anything, the sophomore is eager to be back on the field and wear the famous red and blue.
“I don’t think we need to feel any pressure; we know what we’re about,” he said. “I’m ready, I’m ready to go.”
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