UL-Lafayette running back Raymond Calais carries the ball during practice Aug. 17 in Lafayette.

As the saying goes, you never fully appreciate what you have until it's gone.

For Raymond Calais Jr., that something was football.

The UL-Lafayette sophomore tailback and kick return specialist found out how much football truly meant to him after a torn labrum forced Calais to miss the final three games of his freshman year.

It took six months of daily rehab before Calais was cleared to return to action.

“I was really down. I missed the (New Orleans) Bowl game, and that really hurt me," Calais said. "But I just kept on grinding, kept on pushing, and kept my faith.”

Calais' work and faith paid off in a big way for the Ragin’ Cajuns' 51-48 season-opening win against Southeastern Louisiana. The Cecilia High graduate provided an instant spark when he returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.

Calais then added a 100-yard return later on in the first quarter.

Calais ended the night with 229 return yards — good enough for the highest average in the nation (57.3 yards) among players with at least four returns. 

Saturday’s record-setting performance did much more than earn Calais Sun Belt and LSWA special teams player of the week honors. It gave the Cajuns something they were missing all last season — a pulse in the return game.

The Cajuns' kickoff return unit was one of the worst in the nation a season ago, averaging just 17.8 yards per return.

Improving field position was a point of emphasis for special-teams coordinator and head coach Mark Hudspeth throughout preseason camp, something that was not lost on Calais. He credited the Cajuns' plan of attack as a major factor in his big day.

“Coach Hud schemed it up that way," Calais said. "We saw weakness in their kickoff unit, and we took advantage. The first one was designed to go right and the second one was designed to go in the middle, but I felt that pressure coming from the left, so I bounced it outside and it paid off.”

But don’t let Calais' willingness to give all the credit to his coaches and teammates fool you. He possesses one important skill that is must have for any kickoff returner: speed. Calais, the 2016 Gatorade Louisiana Boys Track & Field Athlete of the Year, has plenty of it.

“When I get out there, I just think about catching the ball and hitting the hole as fast as I can.” Calais said. “Once I get past defenders I feel like no one can catch me.”

In the end, just being back on the field was what matted most to Calais, a feeling he will not take for granted.

“It was absolutely amazing," he said. "From the road I've been through, with my shoulder surgery, to take the kickoff back was amazing. I can't really put it into words. I just felt good, and seeing my teammates happy made it a lot better.”