The 2020 football season didn’t proceed normally for anybody, but when Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander fielded a question last week about players who might have particularly needed this spring, his mind went first to Pheldarius Payne.
The junior college transfer built a good reputation as a pass-rusher at that level, verbally committed to North Carolina State and played with Lackawanna (Pennsylvania) Community College all the way to the juco national title game on Dec. 5, 2019. He flipped his commitment to Nebraska and signed his national letter of intent two weeks later, but wasn’t set to arrive on campus until May 2020.
Midway through that period, of course, the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States and threw pretty much everything off-kilter. Payne did arrive at NU on schedule, but he dealt with more than just the pandemic.
“At first when I came in, I had shoulder surgery, so as soon as I came in, I rehabbed for about two months,” he told reporters Monday. “And I had to hurry up and lift weights and bench (press) and I was benching, I don’t think 135 (pounds). I was benching like 25 on each side.”
The original plan was for Payne to play on the defensive line for Tony Tuioti. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds, he was built a little bit more like, say, Deontre Thomas than some of the behemoths in the room such as Ty Robinson, Jordon Riley, Damion Daniels and other 300-plus pounders. Tuioti thought Payne could provide some pass-rush punch with a quick get-off and different repertoire of moves.
“Then I got COVID and I had to sit out and I lost weight,” Payne said.
That came in the summer as Nebraska ramped up for a season that ultimately was shortened, then postponed, then shortened again and put back on the calendar for October.
Still, with the weight loss, NU made the decision to move Payne to outside linebacker.
“I learned a whole new system because I’ve never played outside linebacker,” Payne said.
He played the season between 260 and 265 pounds and worked his way into a part-time role on the edge of Nebraska’s defense. Payne appeared in all eight games for the Huskers and logged 21 tackles (two for loss) and a sack.
“I don’t think I did good, but better than expected,” he said. “The speed level is about the same as in juco, but the strength, you can definitely tell. Like when you get your hands on a lineman, a tackle or a guard, from Minnesota or Illinois, they have better strength.”
This spring, he said he’s down to about 250 pounds but likes where he’s at with his weight as he strives to continue to shed bad pounds and add good ones.
“Another summer with (strength coach Zach) Duval, I think it will be great,” Payne said.
Payne will likely end up playing standing up at times and with his hand in the dirt at others with the way Chinander and company roll through different fronts and personnel groups. The defensive line rotation is a deep one, and at outside linebacker the heavier group includes players such as Garrett Nelson and Damian Jackson. Payne mentioned both — "D-Jax" and "G-Nelly” — as he rattled through how just about everyone in the position group has helped him in some way or another. So, too, has outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson.
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“I’ve learned a lot (from Dawson),” he said. “I thought football was just X’s and O’s and just going, but you can learn stuff from the line pre-snap, after the snap and little movements from the linemen.”
Now with 10 spring practices under his belt, Payne’s had more healthy developmental time in the past three weeks than pretty much any stretch since he first arrived on campus last summer.
“This will be a great year for him,” Chinander said. “He’s been through the program now, he’s healthy. He’s been in the weight room and he’s got a lot of reps this spring.”
“I expect to do a whole lot better because now I know the system and how things run,” Payne added. “I can just play. I can run to the ball and make plays.
“Last year I was playing like a robot, I would say, and just trying to actually not mess up, but now I can just run.”
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