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Florida Football

Parental Perspective: From Fan to Walk-on to Scholarship Starter

August 29, 2019
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FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
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Jacob Tilghman was destined to be a Gator football player. He grew up  with posters of Emmitt Smith on his walls and a “Welcome to the Swamp” sign above his bedroom door, according to his father, Terry Tilghman.

Terry played on the offensive line at East Carolina in the early 1990s and spent about 20 years in coaching. Jacob’s been “on the football field since he’s been out of diapers,” Terry said. Jacob often followed his dad to the practice field and ran around and gave water to the players.

He played baseball for a while and loved the sport, but he eventually gravitated toward football. Eventually, Jacob found his niche in the sport as a long-snapper.

“He always said he wanted to be a Gator, and I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Jacob’s mom, Jennifer, said. “He goes, ‘Oh, well Dad coaches football, but I want to play for the Florida Gators.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ I just kind of brushed it off.”

When he got older, Jacob talked to his mom about playing college football, and she told him to talk to his dad and some of the people he knows. He had walk-on offers from some FCS programs, but he decided that the first major school to show him attention would be where he would go to college.

As it turned out, Terry had the perfect connection for him.

Jim McElwain had just been hired as the Gators’ new head coach, and he hired Greg Nord as his special teams coordinator and assigned him to recruit Volusia County. Nord coached at East Carolina when Terry was a freshman, so they knew each other decently well. Nord called Jacob and offered him a spot on the team as a preferred walk-on.

There was no discussion or deliberation about where he was going to go to college. True to his word, Jacob committed to Florida soon after taking a visit and never wavered or regretted that decision.

“He’s been a fan all his life,” Terry said. “That’s what he always wanted to do. He’s always been a fan.

“He knew that whenever you have a chance to go to the University of whatever, that’s where you want to go. If you’re living in North Carolina, all the kids want to go to the University of North Carolina. They’ll go to NC State, they’ll go to East Carolina if North Carolina doesn’t want them. So, if you’re playing high school football here in the state of Florida and the University of Florida wants you to come play for them, then you got a chance to go play at the University of Florida. That’s what most kids want to do.”

When he arrived at Florida in the summer of 2015, his goal was to one day earn a scholarship, Terry said. That’s obviously very hard to do. Usually, coaches only award scholarships to seniors. Even then, long-snappers are usually behind kickers, punters and skill position players in the walk-on pecking order.

Tilghman, now a redshirt senior, entered fall camp in a tight competition with Brett DioGuardi to be the starter. Little did he know that he and DioGuardi were fighting for much more than just the starting role; they were also fighting for a scholarship.

Due to off-season attrition, Florida entered the season with several open scholarships. Coach Dan Mullen said he and his staff determined before camp that the winner of the long-snapping competition would get one of them. Mullen was quick to point out, however, that he didn’t give Tilghman anything. He had to earn it on the practice field.

“He had to go out there and earn it with a couple of guys in a pretty close long snapping competition and guys that had done it,” Mullen said. “He kind of just in the complete combination of everything -- not just timing, accuracy, cover ability and blocking ability within the scheme, just edged out the other guys.”

Terry said Jacob’s snapping speed separates him from a lot of other snappers and allowed him to win the starting job. Snapping the ball a few hundredths of a second slower than normal could be the difference between making a field goal and having a kick or punt blocked. Jacob also has the size (6-foot-2, 214 pounds) and athleticism to be an effective blocker.

After practice on Aug. 21, Mullen gathered the team around him and asked them what the most important unit on the team is. As Mullen’s said several times, the correct answer to this question is the punt team. Mullen then told the team that it isn’t right for players on the starting punt team to not be on scholarship. He called Tilghman in front of the team and gave him the news, and his teammates celebrated with him.

Tilghman called his mom first to deliver the news.

“He’s like, ‘Hey, mom.’ I was like, ‘Yeah,’” Jennifer Tilghman said. “Jacob kind of sounded like he was crying, but Jacob never cries, and he goes, ‘Mom, you don’t have to pay for my school. Don’t worry about it.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he goes, ‘My school’s paid for.’ I was like, ‘Wait, what?’”

Jacob then called his dad, but he didn’t tell him about the scholarship right away. Instead, he opted to have a little bit of fun and lead Terry to believe that something bad had happened.

“He was kind of somber, kind of acting like he was mad at practice,” Terry said. “It was one of those phone calls where he was going to complain about the punt team or something, and then he said, ‘Well Dad, I’ve got some bad news for you.’ And I was like, ‘Well, crap. You probably wrecked the car or broke the scooter or it’s going to cost me some more money to do something else.’ But, he says, ‘You and mom don’t have to pay for school anymore.’ I just paused like that and said, ‘What do you mean?’ And then he told me the story about what Coach Mullen did to him at practice, and I congratulated him.

“You could tell that he was emotional, and we were both emotional on the phone. That was his ultimate goal. His dad played scholarship football at East Carolina, and now he can say that he played scholarship football at the University of Florida.”

Jennifer said Jacob has always been talented and hard-working, but he didn’t fully believe in himself until recently.

“It’s not something you can teach a kid; it’s something you can only instill in him to know that, ‘Hey, you are as good as you are, but believe in yourself,’” she said. “For the first time, I think it was probably during the summer that Jacob actually believed in himself.”

Terry said the news came at the perfect time, as classes had already begun, and he and Jennifer were trying to figure out how they were going to pay for Jacob’s graduate classes. He hasn’t calculated exactly how much money he’s going to save, but he estimated that it’s at least $15,000 to $20,000.

“Can you make that cash register sound?” Terry said. “That was the noise in my head because, you know, it was just a lot of pressure relief. We were setup and ready as parents to go ahead and pay for his grad school and be done with it. But, to know that he was going to be on scholarship and we didn’t have to worry about meal plan and we didn’t have to worry about all the other stuff that comes with the fall semester and being a walk-on student athlete, that was instantly [relieving].”

Mullen didn’t ease Tilghman into the starting job. The first time he took the field against Miami, the Gators ran a fake punt. Mullen said Tilghman did “a nice job blocking,” and they picked up the first down.

“The only thing I’m upset about is my son’s first starting snap as a long-snapper at the University of Florida, an SEC football team playing against Miami, week zero, everybody watching, and, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, we’re going to fake the punt,’” Terry joked. “Jacob was a little nervous, but I think he did fine. He graded out at the 75th percentile, which they always grade the first film harder than the other ones.”

While most people think of a scholarship as meaning you don’t have to pay for tuition and books, the true value of an athletic scholarship goes beyond that.

Former Gators tight end R.J. Raymond knows just how big being awarded a scholarship is. He walked-on to the program in 2014 and was placed on scholarship by McElwain in the spring of 2017. However, he was notified just before fall classes began that year that he was no longer on scholarship and would have to pay for school. Mullen placed him on scholarship again last fall.

As he did with Tilghman, Mullen made a big deal about Raymond and Nick Villano’s contributions on special teams when he awarded them scholarships.

“[My parents] were super proud and very excited for me,” Raymond said. “It was just a cool experience for all of us. It was awesome.”

According to NCAA regulations, there are certain things the team is allowed to do for scholarship athletes that they can’t for walk-ons. Raymond said he’s not entirely sure what the rules are, but the biggest changes he noticed were not having to pay rent and being allowed to eat all the team meals for free. Some of these meals are paid for by the meal plan the scholarship athletes are on, so walk-ons had to either provide their own food or buy the same meal that the scholarship players got for free.

Raymond said he was a preferred walk-on like Tilghman, meaning he was recruited in high school but not offered a scholarship. For traditional walk-ons who try out and make the team, he said he thinks there’s a rule that you have to be on the team for a year before you can get access to the team’s tutors.

Scholarship players also receive a cost of attendance stipend, which he said was a couple hundred dollars per month. Considering all that, he said being on scholarship saved him about $15,000 to $20,000, right in line with Terry Tilghman’s estimate.

He said he didn’t notice much of a difference in the way his teammates treated him or looked at him after he was put on scholarship. He just kept working the same way as he did when was a walk-on, and his teammates respected that. From what he’s seen, it’s the same for other players as well.

“Everybody who earns a scholarship earns it for a reason, and they always bust their butt and work hard, and they deserve it,” he said. “So, I don’t think that changes anything. If anything, it just makes them work harder and see that the coaches believe in them, the team believes in them. It’s something they worked for forever, and they finally got it, so why stop there?”

Raymond said not having to worry about paying for school is like having a huge weight lifted off of your shoulders. All college students have a lot of things on their minds and a lot of responsibilities to take care of, but it goes to another level with athletes. Having one less thing to worry about allowed him to focus more on football and study harder.

Now, Jacob Tilghman will get to reap those benefits.

In a lot of ways, being awarded a scholarship is a fitting conclusion to his Gator journey. He wanted to play for the Gators since he was a little kid, worked extremely hard to earn a spot on the team and waited more than four years before finally getting his opportunity to play. He’s a starter on the UF football team, and he doesn’t have to pay a dime to do it. Jennifer was flooded with emotions when Jacob called to deliver the news.

“When I got that call, I was like, ‘Are you serious?’” she said. “It kind of brought me back to him being a kid. Jacob has always loved Gator football.”

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