When he takes his place along USF’s offensive line sometime during the first quarter Saturday night, one might understand if Mak Djulbegovic takes a brief moment to glance around and let the atmosphere sink in before planting his right fist into the turf below.
If this were Hollywood, the fifth-year senior would surely be the focal point of a blockbuster film — starring in the unlikely story of a young man who rose from the depths of a diminutive, upstart football program in high school, to the front lines of Division I college football.
There was a time when the man who teammates and coaches refer to as “Mak D” or “Big Mak” didn’t think he wanted this. Djulbegovic couldn’t envision himself buried in the trenches in front of thousands of spectators, clawing back defenders with his 6-foot-6, 290-pound frame.
But along his journey, he learned to love it and put in his time. In turn, the game rewarded him.
* * *
The first time Djulbegovic (pronounced juh-BAY-go-vitch) stepped foot on a gridiron, there was no instant spark — not even one iota of excitement.
As an eighth-grader on Carrollwood Day School’s start-up six-man football team, he couldn’t stand the sport. In practice and games, Djulbegovic would rather have been anywhere else, like the basketball court, where he had excelled.
But his mother, a native of Bosnia, convinced him to stick it out.
“My mom, she actually was the one who said, ‘Hey, just go out and be apart of the first team,’“ Djulbegovic said. “I was like, ‘Ugh. I don’t know.’ But, I did it and hated it.”
Djulbegovic swore off football after the winless season. He was convinced it was no place for him.
But the next school year, while wandering the halls of the small private school, Djulbegovic bumped into assistant coach Dino Leto, who had taken notice of his height.
“He saw me and he was like, ‘Hey, why aren’t you out there?’” Djulbegovic recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and he said, ‘Well, you’re coming out and you’re playing football again.’”
Djulbegovic agreed to give it another try.
Under the guidance of coach Lane McLaughlin, Djulbegovic grew into a star. He helped lead the Patriots to the six-man state title later that year in 2007, then played a trio of positions — offensive tackle, defensive end and tight end — as CDS fielded an 11-man squad the next year.
His senior season, Djulbegovic accumulated 51 total tackles and nine sacks. He even carried the ball four times and ran for a touchdown in his final game.
When he wasn’t playing football, the Louisville, Kentucky native was busy starring on the hardwood or running the 800 meters as a multi-sport athlete for CDS.
“He was faster than some of our running backs,” McLaughlin said. “He was a fast kid — a hard-working kid.”
* * *
Although Djulbegovic had built a success story at CDS, the major college offers never came.
Toward the end of his senior year, it seemed like the days of football would have to settle in his past.
Though he acquired interest from a couple Division I-AA and Division II programs, including offers from The Citadel and Fordham, Djulbegovic had been accepted as a student at the University of Florida. He even went as far as filling out his housing application before his mother chimed in with another interesting idea.
“My mom told me, ‘You know, just apply to USF as a backup,” he said. “I (told her), ‘I’ll never go to USF. I’ll never go to USF.’”
Ultimately, he agreed.
That spring at the NCAA national convention in Dallas, McLaughlin approached former USF defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and told him to check Djulbegovic out.
Snyder passed the word along to USF’s then-offensive coordinator Todd Fitch. He was impressed and asked Djulbegovic if he wanted to walk on.
It was an opportunity Djulbegovic couldn’t pass up.
* * *
In fall camp, Djulbegovic was back on the field. But in a way, he was out of place.
“Five years ago, he came in to fall camp and I thought he was a tight end,” senior left guard Thor Jozwiak said.
It was true. Though Djulbegovic was essentially a man among boys on CDS’s roster, at USF he was tall and lanky, Jozwiak described.
“Two-hundred forty pounds soaking wet,” Jozwiak joked.
Over time, however, Djulbegovic worked to bulk up.
After redshirting, he added more muscle to his frame and saw his first real game action in USF’s opener against Chattanooga in 2012. When Willie Taggart took over the program following Skip Holtz’s firing, it didn’t take long for coaches to notice his progress in the spring.
That season, Djulbegovic made his first start at right tackle in a loss to Memphis.
“I forget sometimes because I’m around him, but you look at him and you’re like, ‘Wow, Mak D’s a big guy,’” Jozwiak said. “I mean, the strides he’s made on the field — his technique and being consistent — the guy has really worked hard and is one of the hardest workers on the team by far.”
* * *
After contributing mostly on special teams for USF last season, Djulbegovic found himself excelling in the spring and taking most of the first-team reps during fall camp.
“When spring ended, he was probably playing the best out of all of our offensive line,” offensive line coach Danny Hope said.
Soon, he was elevated to starting right tackle on the depth chart. And with three scholarships up for grabs prior to the season opener, Djulbegovic knew he might find his way into the conversation for one. Still, he was careful not to assume anything.
But during a team meeting at the conclusion of preseason camp Aug. 22, Djulbegovic’s time finally came.
First, Taggart announced junior long-snapper Alex Salvato’s name. Then, after a few tense moments, Djulbegovic’s.
The room erupted in cheers.
For Mak D, who cursed football as a teenager eight years ago, it was the honor of a lifetime.
“It’s four years of hard work, but I’m a firm believer that success is not an individual effort,” Djulbegovic said. “We have an unbelievable athletic training staff, strength coaches, football coaches, academic help — without all their help, I mean, it wouldn’t be possible.
“It finally came true. … But now it’s time to keep working.”
Follow Jeff Odom on Twitter @ByJeffOdom.