When Pheldarius Payne arrived in Lincoln, he was in, well, pain.
The junior college transfer’s first season at Nebraska included a preseason shoulder injury, COVID-19 and all the other challenges that came with playing football during a pandemic.
Even so, Payne managed to play in all eight games for Nebraska and he finished the season strong. Now he’s had a full, healthy offseason to work on his body and his game, and his coaches have noticed the difference.
“I think being healthy helps Pheldarius,” outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson said. “He had the shoulder coming in last year so it was a little abbreviated as far as his training and working before camp and things like that, and then obviously having a wacky year for everybody didn’t help him. Now he’s spent a year-plus with Dave Ellis and working that training table and getting the right food in his body and then also with Zach [Duval] and the guys in the weight room who do a great job with him. For him to be a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, I think that gives him more confidence and allows him to play faster.”
Payne said he’s added 16 pounds of muscle and lost 4% body fat. He’s at 258 pounds now, right where Dawson wants his outside linebackers.
“I feel way stronger, way faster and my turnover time and quickness, I feel like that all helps,” Payne said. “Vertical movement, lateral movement, I think it helps a lot.”
That first year involved a position change as Payne switched from defensive end, the position he played at Lackawanna College, to the outside ‘backer position he’s in now. Payne originally committed to defensive line coach Tony Tuioti, with whom he said he was “all-in.” However, he has built a strong relationship with Dawson as well since arriving on campus.
“He’s very emotional, he’ll tell you what it is and what it isn’t, and that’s why I do love him because he’s straightforward and straight to the fact, he’s not going to sugarcoat it or give you baby food,” Payne said.
Payne said Dawson’s style reminds him of his dad; he said he may not always enjoy it, but he knows he needs some tough love at times.
“To me, the guys want the truth,” Dawson said. “They want to be as good as they can be and this day and age sometimes having hard conversations that are truthful is not easy. It’s a lot easier to text somebody or send them an email where you don’t have to look them in the eye. If they know that you know the game and you are telling them something that is going to help them be a better football player, they’re going to listen to you. If they think you’re cheating the game or you don’t know the scheme or you don’t know the technique that you’re trying to teach, they’ll sniff that out in a second …
“And then the other thing is you have to show the guys that you do care about them and you’re after their best interests. I always coach them hard and that won’t stop. That’s why Scott has me on staff, to coach my guys hard and get them to play fas and that’s something that we’re always going to do. Our guys know that, they know the deal going into each practice and going into each meeting, truthfully. We’ll have hard conversations when we need to. When we do it right, I’ll be the first one to tell them great job and that’s what we’re looking for also.”
Payne recorded 21 tackles including two for loss and two passes defended in 2020. He recorded his first career sack in Nebraska’s season-ending win at Rutgers, and that’s an area where the Huskers expect him to make an even bigger impact in 2021.
“He’s a slippery guy, a guy that can make plays,” Dawson said. “He can contort and twist his body and sometimes I’ll see him kind of do a pass rush move and it’s nothing that you’ve seen or coached before and you’re like ‘Yeah, that’s not something we worked on but heck, that worked; keep doing it buddy,’ one of those types of deals. He can get to the quarterback and find a way. I think that’s definitely a strength for him.”
Payne praised the pass-rushing ability of the other linebackers in Dawson’s room, saying he’s picking up moves from the likes of Caleb Tannor, Garrett Nelson and Damian Jackson.
“They’ve all got some gadgets in their bags that I pick up from,” Payne said.
That natural pass-rushing ability is why the coaches recruited him in the first place, but after putting a season’s worth pf play on tape Payne has built a better understanding of where he needs to improve in order to make an impact at the Big Ten level.
“I think I’m good with my hands because I’ve been working with my hands a lot,” Payne said. “My get-off, I was watching film and I watched it over and over again and I was like during practice I looked good but when I went to the game I was a step slow and I was like ‘I’ve got to work on that.’ In practice I’ve been working on it, but I need to be consistent for when game time comes.”
Another area where he said he’s improved is reading his keys and seeing the field. Now he’s focusing more on the ball rather than locking in on the tackle in front of him, and it’s made a difference. One constant throughout his career, however, has been his motor. He wants to be known for playing hard.
“High school, college, and then Coach Dawson is a big believer in running to the ball, running after the play … Whoever knows, it could be a pop-up fumble,” Payne said. “A lot of people made big plays off second hits, pop-up fumbles, pop-up picks. It can take any little effort. That’s how I feel big people get sacks is a high motor.”
After a rocky first year in the program, Payne is in great shape and the Huskers are counting on him to use that high motor and that natural pass-rushing ability to help the Blackshirts improve on their 1.6 sacks-per-game average from a year ago.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.