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USF safety Mistral Raymond, usually limited to mop-up duty last season, is filling a key role.

Mistral Raymond is usually called "Skinny" by USF football coach Jim Leavitt, and his friends call him Bubba, but the nickname that really motivates the junior walk-on safety, strange as it sounds, is "Sweetbay."

The nickname goes back to his first week of preseason practice a year ago, when Bulls defensive backs coach Troy Douglas was asked if Raymond, a transfer from Ellsworth (Iowa) Community College, had a shot at getting on the field on defense.

"If he's in the game, there's a Sweetbay supermarket," Douglas said. "I'm going to go over to that Sweetbay, get me some chips and a big old Diet Mountain Dew or something, go home and watch another game on TV, because that means that one's over."

It was harsh, a position coach writing off one of his players as little more than a special teams contributor. Douglas is now coaching at North Carolina, but his words have stuck with Raymond.

"I'm sure he's sitting up there in them hills, and I'm sure he is kind of shocked," said Raymond, 22, an interdisciplinary social sciences major due to graduate in 2011. "To some extent, you want to put that on the back burner and move forward. You don't want to dwell on that kind of stuff too much. But it's something I definitely will never forget. I can honestly say that."

Some teammates still affectionately call him "Sweetbay," but the 6-foot-1, 185-pound safety is enjoying the last laugh.

Since starting strong safety Jerrell Young was sidelined by a broken arm early in the opener against Wofford, Raymond has gotten the majority of snaps in Young's place, playing ahead of several scholarship players.

He's second among defensive backs with seven tackles, and he has the team's only interception, in the end zone at Western Kentucky last week. And it's not that surprising to defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, who said Raymond's intangibles are what get him on the field.

"He's very coachable. He's an engaged learner, and he wants to get better every day," said Tresey, who expects Raymond to play significant snaps again in Saturday's home game against Charleston Southern. "When you have those attributes, you give yourself a chance to play. He's doing a really good job. It's important to him. ... Wanting to learn, studying the game, studying film, studying a scouting report and working hard on a daily basis, that's what puts him in the position he's in now."

Raymond was Ellsworth's leading tackler in 2007 with 62 stops, and he had scholarship offers from smaller schools such as Temple, Central Michigan and Middle Tennessee State. The Palmetto native said he chose USF because of family concerns that made him want to stay close to home.

Raymond played on special teams for USF in four games last season, working on the kickoff, punt and punt return units. He has moved into starting roles on those same squads this season.

Leavitt has talked about establishing depth in these early games against lesser opponents, identifying reserves he can trust when starters can't play. Young is returning to practice and could be back on the field in the next game or two, but Raymond has shown he can hold his own on defense while a game's score still matters.

"It's really been a true blessing," he said. "I've always been confident I would be on the field and do everything I can to help this program and contribute to the team's success."

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.

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