USF's Mistral Raymond an unlikely leader

Two years ago, Mistral Raymond walked into a South Florida practice unannounced, highlight tape in hand. The Bulls coaches had never heard of him.

On Saturday, Raymond will walk into The Swamp as one of the most valuable players on the USF defense.

The story of how he got to this point is one of perseverance and a primal need to protect one's family.

"He had to get here the hard way, so he appreciates every day he gets to practice," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "He's a champion on the practice field. He competes every single play."

Raymond had no scholarship offers out of Palmetto (Fla.) High School, so he headed to junior college in Iowa. There he started to gain some notice and attracted scholarship offers from Temple and other smaller FBS schools. But one night in February changed everything.

Back in Palmetto, some lowlifes fired bullets and threw Molotov cocktails into his mother's house. One his sisters got shot, while the rest of the family was lucky. Raymond says the assailants meant to attack the house next door. He felt helpless being so far away.

"I felt like I needed to be there for them," he said. "I was more comfortable being around them at that time."

So that's why Raymond walked into a South Florida spring practice, where he first ran into then-assistant coach Mike Simmonds. He explained who he was, and eventually it led to an offer for Raymond to walk on that summer. After some minor prank calls to his mother's house when he first got back, home life has returned to normalcy.

He started four games in 2009 as a safety and nickelback, and when Skip Holtz and his new staff arrived this offseason, they were surprised that Raymond was a walk-on. He was often their best defensive back in practice. He's tall and rangy at 6-foot-2, 192 pounds -- coaches call him "Skinny" -- and he can play anywhere in the secondary.

"I keep talking about our youth on defense, and right now he's a staple," Holtz said. "He's our dam-stopper. If we're not getting it done at corner, he can play corner. If we're not getting it done at safety, he can play safety."

Snyder said Raymond will start at corner this Saturday at Florida but could move around. Raymond doesn't mind the shuffling.

"If they locked me into one position and said that's it, I'd probably pass out," he said. "I want to be versatile and move around the lineup in certain situations. I want to be that man in the secondary where the coach can dial up my number any time."

In August, Holtz awarded Raymond a scholarship for his senior season. And Raymond was named a team captain in a vote by his peers, after Holtz asked his players to select those who best represented the team and for whom they had the most respect.

After putting him on scholarship, Holtz told Raymond it could be the beginning of his dream or the end of it. The coach had seen other former walk-ons get complacent once they made it to that status. But that doesn't seem to be an issue with Raymond, who says he continues to work as if nothing will ever be given to him.

"I think that's the attitude everyone in life has to take, whatever their path is," he said. "I know what I want out of life, and I'm locked in on that."