SEC fans knew how effective an interior defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne was over the past two seasons.
It took a primetime audience witnessing the 310-pound behemoth catch a touchdown pass from Jalen Hurts in the CFP semi-final, though, to understand how freaky athletic he actually was.
And that came a mere 8 plays after picking off a pass and returning it 21 yards.
Both of these, plays, though actually minimize how good Payne truly was at his position in the Tide defense.
He’s the very definition of the new-fangled nose guard at Alabama.
Similar to his 2015 classmate, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Payne inserted himself as a freshman on an already-loaded Alabama defense.
He didn’t start from day one, but he definitely earned playing time and even more impressive, he did it on one of the deepest defensive line units the Alabama football team has ever seen.
If you don’t recall, that line had A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand. Payne became a relied-upon piece in that incredibly deep unit.
A unit for which former Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema had lofty praise.
Payne didn’t catch fire, though, until the following season when his comfort in the trenches allowed him to believe he could fight LSU’s entire sideline in Baton Rouge.
Whatever attitude one needs to bring to a position where very little is expected of you than to eat up blocks, Payne has it.
As was mentioned above, Payne might be the first truly elite example of the new 3-4 nose guard in Nick Saban’s system.
Back when the TIde didn’t allow a single 100-yard rusher from 2007-2010, big men like Terrence Cody, Marcell Dareus and Josh Chapman manned nose guard.
Granted, Dareus was freaky athletic for his size, but Cody was a true two-down, zero-gap nose guard who took up two, sometimes three blocks at once. This, of course, freed up the Tide’s larger middle linebackers to make plays in the opposing team’s backfield.
While Saban still likes to have a big body in his base 3-4, it’s only 10-15 percent of the time this formation is used. Nickel and dime packages with 5 and 6 defensive backs is the norm, now, which means most offenses are using at least 4 receivers on a single play.
Saban needed smaller linebackers and smaller linemen, especially at the defensive tackle position.
This is how Payne, a consensus 5-star recruit out of high school, was going to be effective.
He was still strong enough (he deadlifted 635 pounds prior to the Combine), but also quicker than most NGs (see above 40 time) to essentially implode the pocket on his own and either get to the quarterback or ensure one of his teammates did.
He did this incredibly well in the championship game against Georgia.
As you can see, Payne’s presence was felt either directly or as an assist to a big play for the defense. It was his pressure that allowed for the Tony Brown interception during UGA’s first drive. It was his pressure that continued to flush quarterback Jake Fromm (who played fabulously, by the way) out of the pocket. It was Payne’s incessant pressure that allowed Terrell Lewis to get free on 3rd down in overtime to get the sack on Fromm.
And here’s where the new generation Bama defensive tackle comes into play: Payne moves over to play two-technique over the guards on 3rd down plays. Passing plays are usually reserved for what defensive coaches call “rabbits”: only the quickest players at each position.
Terrence Cody was never used as a rabbit. He had you covered on running plays, then came out on third downs.
Payne was used, all 310 pounds of him, on all three downs. And he was damn effective, too.
Payne didn’t necessarily deserve the defensive MVP for the Clemson game (that should’ve gone to Anfernee Jennings, in my opinion), but they more than got it right in this one.
On the biggest stage imaginable, the big man had 6 tackles, 3 solo, as a defensive tackle, on top of having heat seeking missiles like Lewis, Rashaan Evans, Mack Wilson, Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick around him.
Taking all of this into consideration, Payne will make an unsuspecting team on Thursday evening very happy.
Obviously, there are too many skill position players and pass rushers in this draft to consider a guy with Payne’s ceiling for a Top 10 pick.
He’s a true defensive tackle, but a unique one. Given that Detroit is desperate for some d-line assistance and A’Shawn Robinson is already there, let’s just make the Motor City the pipeline for all badass Tide defenders.
Payne’s a first rounder without breaking a sweat.