TAMPA — With a new coach and all new assistants this spring, there is a clean-slate mentality to USF football. Every job is up for grabs, and every player has a chance to show something.
And as offensive line coach Walt Wells went through winter conditioning, he noticed when his linemen went through non-football competitions — pushing sleds or flipping tractor tires down the field — one player consistently picked high by his peers was tackle Mak Djulbegovic, a walk-on from the scout team who played in one game last year.
"That's great," Wells said. "But we're not tire-flipping on Saturdays."
Since spring drills started last month, Djulbegovic — known to coaches and teammates as "Mak D" — has continued to impress. And when assistants drafted players for today's spring game — after four "free agents" were signed — Djulbegovic, a sophomore next season, was the surprising No. 2 overall pick.
Wells, who will coach against Djulbegovic's Green team, has stopped being surprised by the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder.
"He's real quiet. He just goes to work every day. He's blue-collar, exactly what we want," Wells said. "He picks things up well. He competes. He's very athletic. He can bend. He can run. He has that … I call it 'farm boy' natural strength."
The last name — pronounced juh-BAY-go-vitch — is from his Bosnian-born parents, though Djulbegovic was born in Kentucky and moved to Tampa when he was 4. His father, Benjamin, took a job at USF and is now a professor of medicine and oncology with the Moffitt Cancer Center. Mak came to USF on a Bright Futures scholarship and started as an engineering major, though he's now a business major and considering a minor in psychology.
Djulbegovic was a multisport star at Carrollwood Day School who didn't take up football until eighth grade. He was the rare offensive lineman athletic enough to run the 800 meters and play basketball. Dabbling at tight end, he caught the first pass in Carrollwood Day School history in a jamboree but was physical enough to earn the nickname "Bosnian War Hammer."
Djulbegovic, then just 235 pounds, drew some interest from Division II and III programs but liked the idea of staying home and walking on at USF for "the D-I dream."
"I didn't want to regret anything in five years, to wonder, 'What could I have done?' " he said. "The first day, I was like, 'Wow! What am I doing here?' After the first season, things started getting better.
"Now I can see I can play with these guys. I feel like a part of the group now, so it's probably the best decision I could have made."
One reason Djulbegovic, battling for the right tackle job, was picked so high for the Green squad in the spring-game draft was an effort to neutralize one of the White's top players, defensive end Aaron Lynch, a transfer from Notre Dame who has established himself as an elite pass rusher.
"The guy is a special talent, and he pushes me every day," Djulbegovic said. "I feel like I'm able to push him in aspects of his game, and both of us make each other better. It's a good experience going against that guy."
Taggart won't even attempt to pronounce Djulbegovic — when he announced him as a draft pick, it was just "Mak D" — but says the walk-on has done a good job of being memorable this spring.
"He's competing. He's working hard. He's one of those guys who is getting better every single day," Taggart said. "He's catching on and an example for others out there. I told those guys, if they want me to remember their name, do something."