GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When Florida coach Will Muschamp huddled the Gators together following Tuesday afternoon’s practice at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, he saved a special surprise for last.
The announcement left Mark Herndon in tears and brought a huge relief over Tim Clark. Muschamp put both players on scholarship.
“I was not expecting that,” Herndon said. “It threw me so off I just started crying. I couldn’t contain it. He said I deserved it, and I’m just humbled because I feel like it could have been anyone else. There are people who have been here longer than me that haven’t gotten one yet.”
A walk-on running back from Ocala (Fla.) Forest High, Herndon is a sophomore who played in six games on special teams last season. With Matt Jones sidelined by a viral infection, Herndon has taken consistent reps at tailback and made a good impression on the coaching staff.
Herndon’s success is no fluke. As a senior in high school the 5-foot-9, 194-pound Herndon rushed for more than 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns.
“Mark Herndon played as a true freshman walk-on, and that doesn’t happen very often at the University of Florida,” Muschamp said. “He works extremely hard. He is as well-respected a teammate as anyone out here, and he defines what we expect from our players here.”
Clark is a fifth-year senior defensive back who arrived at UF from Branford High in Wellborn, Fla. When Muschamp took over the program in 2011, he put Clark on scholarship for his final two years as an undergraduate. However, Clark is now a graduate student studying sports management and is getting married in February.
While life after football is calling, Clark decided to continue playing as a walk-on since he had a year of eligibility remaining from a redshirt season. The walk-on label is no more for Clark.
“I was very surprised. If they hadn’t given me a scholarship, I wouldn’t have quit,” Clark said. “I just love Gator football and I’ve always been a Gator fan. I would have stuck it out. It’s just been a blessing the entire time.”
Muschamp understands the demands and challenges of being a walk-on. He started his career at Georgia as a walk-on defensive back and by the time he was a senior, Muschamp was on scholarship and a team captain.
He was visibly excited Tuesday when breaking the news about Herndon and Clark.
“I certainly appreciate where they come from and the lack of opportunities they have versus scholarship players,” Muschamp said. “They’ve taken advantage of theirs. I told the team this is my favorite time of the year. To be able to have a scholarship to do that, that is just a thrill to me.
“I remember the day my head coach, Ray Goff, walked up to me and told me I was on scholarship. It’s a feeling you never forget. I know that feeling — the joy, the passion and emotion of that moment — so it’s an absolute thrill for me to be on the other end of it.”
Clark is expected to contribute on special teams and Herndon’s impact during fall camp has made him a candidate to add some carries to his special-teams responsibilities.
As Herndon walked off the field Tuesday, the first person he planned to call was his mother, Roxanne.
Herndon’s road to UF and a football scholarship has not been an easy one. He opted to walk on with the Gators rather than sign a scholarship at a smaller school.
“I grew up below middle class,” Herndon said. “I started playing running back my junior year of high school, so I started kind of late. My breakout year was really my senior year. I started getting a lot of looks, but this is always the school I wanted to be at. I started to get a look at schools in the West and Midwest. That’s not where I wanted to be. I’m from Florida and I didn’t want to leave.”
Herndon was excused from a portion of spring practice when family concerns forced him to leave. Muschamp told Herndon, well-liked in the locker room and one of the team’s most prominent volunteers in the community, to take care of his personal matters and that he would have a place on the team when he returned.
Herndon arrived to fall camp determined to get an opportunity to play. In a crowded backfield with Matt Jones, Mack Brown and true freshmen Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane, Herndon does not look out of place.
“When I first got here I kind of felt like I wasn’t going to play,” he said. “But Coach Muschamp said he is going to play his best players. My first camp I started rising in special teams. I’m kind of building off special teams. Once I get more coaches on my side, maybe they will let me do more at running back.”
Regardless of how much he plays, Herndon wants his story to resonate beyond the football field.
“This is what I preach to kids, ‘follow your dreams,’ ” Herndon said. “I’m kind of using this as a platform to show kids that no matter where you come from, no matter what you’re going through, chase your dreams. I feel like if I didn’t come here I would have been giving up on something I really wanted.”