R.J. Raymond knelt down with his teammates looking up at the protruding Florida head coach Dan Mullen addressing the team after practice.
Mullen was lecturing the team on embracing their roles. Seemingly in the heat of the moment, he turned to Raymond and asked him what his most important job was.
“Special teams,” responded Raymond, a redshirt senior walk-on.
Mullen asked a follow up: Which position?
“Left shield on punt,” Raymond said after Mullen made him stand up and tell the Gators.
Mullen then turned to fellow walk-on Nick Villano and asked the same thing.
“Right shield on punt,” Villano said, also forced to stand.
Mullen is known for having a special love for special teams. They are the first to eat at team meals. They are considered by Mullen to be the most important positions in the game.
So when Mullen had Raymond and Villano address the team, he wanted to highlight just how significant their contributions were.
“Punt is the most important thing we do, right?” Mullen asked. “So it’s not right that you guys are walk-ons. You’re both on scholarship.”
Jubilation. Teammates mobbed the two walk-on-turned-scholarship players. Feleipe Franks nearly starting a dogpile. It was a feeling Raymond would never forget.
The words “you’re on scholarship,” were enough for Raymond to nearly tackle Mullen in pure, unadulterated joy. His hard work and years of sacrifice finally paid off. In his final semester at UF before he graduates, Raymond will have some of his expenses covered.
His journey was nearly coming full circle. He’d already earned a scholarship before it was taken away for recruiting purposes. He’d played under three coaches and went through four positions before he found his role at tight end. Now, he’d finally found validation.
Former UF quarterback Luke Del Rio has known Raymond since Del Rio was 16. They are best friends, and Del Rio plans on making Raymond the best man at his wedding next summer.
In a podcast he tweeted out on Aug. 23, the day after Raymond had received his scholarship from Mullen, Del Rio dropped a bombshell.
This was not the first time Raymond has been on scholarship. He was given one in January 2017.
“And nobody knows that,” Del Rio said.
So what happened? If he had been on scholarship before, why was he just getting back on it now?
According to Del Rio, former Florida coach Jim McElwain held secret meetings when it came to giving out scholarships. It’s what happened to Del Rio, who had walked on when he transferred from Oregon State. And it’s what happened to Raymond.
These meetings were so secret that not everyone on the team knew if a player was on scholarship. Only those close to the player ever heard the news. That’s how Del Rio knew about Raymond’s situation from early 2017.
McElwain’s philosophy, according to Del Rio, is that you have to prove you are better than some players who are on scholarship. It’s not earned through hard work alone.
Raymond was now on scholarship in the offseason between the 2017 and 2018 seasons. There was no surprise video for that one. And there was a reason why.
In July, Raymond received his scholarship renewal letter, which tells players how much money they would be receiving for the semester. He opened it up and on the inside where they put the amount, there was a zero, according to Del Rio.
This was how most walk-ons found out their scholarship had been pulled. They weren’t told in person, they found out when that letter came in.
“If you pull somebody’s scholarship,” Del Rio said, “you’re basically saying you’re off the team.”
At the time, Florida probably needed that spot for a potential recruit, so it took the money back.
But if you are a walk-on with the Gators, you are probably there because you wanted to be at the University of Florida.
For Raymond, that was definitely the case.
“I’ve been to a game, at least one home game in the Swamp every year since I was 3 years old,” he said.
Raymond’s family had season tickets in Touchdown Terrace Section 3 his whole life. He would even dress as a Gator football player for Halloween. To get that scholarship was a dream come true.
But now, he was without it. And it wasn’t like McElwain told him in person, according to Del Rio. “This does not happen anywhere,” Del Rio said. “The way he was treating walk-ons was just not acceptable”.
There was a time when Raymond thought playing college football was no longer worth it. Especially when he and his family were paying for this experience out of pocket.
He wasn’t on scholarship, he was trying his hardest on the practice field without seemingly any recognition for it and McElwain’s coaching staff was now out at Florida. The university had bought out McElwain’s contract following his statement about alleged death threats that he and some players had received. McElwain never released what those statements said. He coached the Georgia game on Oct. 28, then he was gone.
It left Raymond’s future up in the air.
“So last year when the previous staff got let go and the changes were being made,” Raymond said. “I was talking with my family every day and trying to figure out what was next.”
At the time, he figured he was done. It was hard enough proving himself to McElwain, how would he fare proving himself to a new coach with just one year of eligibility left.
Raymond participated in Senior Day against Florida State on Nov. 22. He heard his name called, and his picture was blown up on the jumbotron at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as he ran out of the tunnel. His parents were there, who he greeted with a hug. Del Rio, who opted not to use a sixth year of eligibility, was as well.
The only thing missing was McElwain. He was not the coach who recruited Raymond (that honor belonged to Will Muschamp), but he was the one that helped Raymond grow and gave him the chance to see the field on special teams.
Raymond went through what he had thought would be the last game of his career. He didn’t record a single stat, but played in the game on special teams.
Florida wasted no time in finding a new head coach. Four days after the game, former Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen was hired to lead the Gators’ football program. Raymond might have a reason to stay.
“Then I saw coach Mullen was hired and I was like, ‘Ya know, I love what this guy’s doing over at Mississippi State,’” Raymond said. “He’s been extremely successful over there so I’m gonna, I’d kick myself if I didn’t come back for my fifth year.”
Raymond always had three goals when it came to playing college football.
The first, and most important in his eyes, was that he was going to graduate and earn a degree from the University of Florida. He’s set to graduate on Dec. 15, four-and-a-half years after he first walked on to the team in 2014.
His second goal was to earn a scholarship. Not just one that will get pulled like under McElwain, but an actual one. A scholarship that shows just how much work he put in all these years. And he accomplished that when Mullen presented him with one.
His final goal was to earn playing time, which he also completed. Raymond saw more action on special teams than any other position, but this year, he is slated for a much bigger role.
Raymond was recruited as a linebacker. He played all the linebacker positions, but didn’t receive any playing time. In his first year, he redshirted. Raymond broke his foot and didn’t appear in a single game the next year.
When he returned from injury in 2016, he became a defensive lineman because Florida lacked depth at the position. Then in 2017, he moved to fullback, where he was only really used on short yard plays, like on the goal line. He was a big body that could be used to block and pave the way for runners behind him. All the while, Raymond played on special teams.
Then Mullen became the coach.
“When coach Mullen got here when I first met with him I was like ‘I came here as a linebacker, I played D-line and last year I played fullback, was meeting with the tight ends,’” Raymond said. “‘Where do you want me? Who do you want me to meet with?’”
Mullen told him to stay in the tight end room. And so far, he has impressed his coaches.
“It’s worked out,” Raymond said.
Both tight ends coach Larry Scott and Mullen have seen strides from him. His football IQ skyrocketed because of his history of playing multiple positions, and Raymond used that to make an impression as a tight end.
“R.J. Raymond I think has really done a nice job so far of playing tight end,” Mullen said. “Because of how we use the tight end, and they’re used in so many different ways, that he can still fit that mold. He’s done a really good job so far.”
“RJ has been good. He is a very good, smart football player,” Scott said. “He plays hard and it means a lot to him. He is a quick learner. R.J. is just one of those guys that is just steady.”
Those praises weren’t empty statements. They held value that translated into more playing time for Raymond.
In the season opener, Raymond was a team captain alongside cornerback C.J. Henderson. He also became a mainstay in the tight end rotation. Listed as the backup to C’yontai Lewis, Raymond saw the field right away against Charleston Southern. He has been targeted, although he hasn’t caught a pass yet.
It has been a rough road for R.J. Raymond, one faced with five positions, four years, three head coaches, two scholarships and one team. But for Raymond it was all worth it.
“It was tough,” he said. “It was a hard decision, but it ended up paying off. So I’m very glad I made that decision.”
Jake Dreilinger is assistant sports editor at The Alligator. You can follow him on Twitter @DreilingerJake or contact him at [email protected].