Nebraska Cornhuskers linebacker Garrett Nelson gives Nebraska Cornhuskers linebacker Pheldarius Payne a hug after blocking a pass
Photo Credit: John Peterson

Husker OLB Pheldarius Payne Settling Into Role After Tough First Year on Campus

April 19, 2021

Arriving on campus in January 2020 would have been difficult on any new player. It’s always a tough adjustment to enroll at a new school and be expected to hit the ground running for winter conditioning. Doing that in 2020 presented its own unique challenges. The last year has been strange in many ways. You won’t meet a person who hasn’t has their life disrupted by the events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Husker outside linebacker Pheldarius Payne, it’s been one setback after another since arriving last January.

“At first when I came in, I had to shoulder surgery,” Payne said. “So as soon as I came in I rehabbed for about two months. I had to hurry up and just lift weights. I don’t think I was benching 135 pounds. I was benching like 25 on each side. Then I got COVID, so I had to sit out and I lost weight. Then I moved to linebacker and I had to learn a whole new system. I never played outside linebacker before that. After that, it was fun.”

He flashed some potential during the eight games that he appeared in totaling 21 tackles. The Virginia native added a pair of tackles for loss, one sack and two pass breakups. Payne was his toughest critic when grading himself on Monday after practice.

“I don’t think I did good but it was better than expected,” Payne said. “The speed level was the same between here and JUCO but the strength you could definitely tell. If you get your hands on a tackle or guard from Minnesota or Illinois they had a different strength.

It wasn’t always the plan for Payne to play outside linebacker at Nebraska. He’s been handling the change well but it was brought on by the things that have happened to him over the last year. The defensive staff approached him about the switch last July or August. That’s when the season was pushed back by the Big Ten. At that point he was down to around 260 pounds and the rest of the defensive ends were 280 pounds and up.

Now that the defender has a year under his belt at Nebraska, he’s hoping to make a big jump. His own expectations are high as a result of being more comfortable.

“Oh, I expect to do a whole lot better,” Payne said. “Because now I know the system and how things run. I can just play. I can actually just run to the ball and make plays. Last year, I was playing like a robot I would say just trying to actually not mess up. But now I know the plays so I can just run.”

Coaches talk all the time about how being more comfortable in the system can free them up to play faster. It would have helped Payne a lot to have the time in 2020 to learn everything but it didn’t work out that way. It’s why defensive coordinator Erik Chinander believes 2021 is so crucial for him to get reps.

“He comes in and has a shoulder deal so he doesn’t get a good winter conditioning,” Chinander said. “Then spring ball gets canceled on him. Then fall camp is moved back He was a guy that needed a great summer, winter conditioning and he needed a big spring ball, so this is a great year for him. He’s been through the program now and he’s healthy. He’s been in the weight room and has gotten a lot of reps this spring.”

Payne has the potential to be an important piece of the Husker defense that is searching for consistent pass rush. After going through a bumpy first year in Lincoln he could be ready to hit the ground running for the 2021 season.

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