ATHENS -- Sophomore Christian Payne is an unlikely candidate to start for a major FBS program. He held just one offer as a recruit. A high school linebacker, he was considered undersized to play college football. His only avenue to major college football was by walking on, and now he’s at a different position than the one at which he started.
But when the Bulldogs released their first depth chart following the spring, there was Payne’s name, sitting atop the depth chart at fullback.
After spring practice, Payne was told the job was his to lose and took that as a challenge from the coaching staff. When he was on break from the team during the summer, he would travel 13 miles west to his old high school, Prince Avenue Christian, in Bogart to work out in the weight room. Power cleans, squats, you name it. Payne spent his free time bulking up for what appears to be an expanded role this year.
Going from no-name walk-on to starter was only half the battle. Keeping the job is another challenge in itself.
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“Mentally, I just go to each practice each day as if I’m third string, fourth string,” Payne said. “Trying to move my way up. Some stars, when they get that spot, they ease off. That’s not my mindset. I approach it like I’m a scout-teamer and that I’m going to work my tail off each and every day.”
Payne becoming a college fullback was never on his former high school coach’s radar. Jeff Herron coached Payne at Prince Avenue Christian during his final season of high school football in 2013, when Payne was a standout linebacker and tight end. Following his arrival from Camden County, Herron immediately knew he had a talented player in Payne.
But there was one problem. Payne’s size and physical stature at that time prevented any FBS teams from offering a scholarship as an inside linebacker.
“I was shocked by the way it played out and that he didn’t have any offers coming into his senior season,” Herron said.
Herron spoke with former Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham about Payne’s prospects as a college player. Grantham explained that Payne didn’t have the size to earn a scholarship. He was about 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds -- “soaking wet,” said Payne -- before arriving to campus. Herron was told Payne didn’t have the speed Grantham’s other linebacker recruits had either.
The same apparently applied with other college programs.
Payne’s lone offer was from Presbyterian College, an FCS program in the Big South Conference. Not even Wofford or Furman offered, despite displaying interest. Payne probably would have picked up more FCS offers if he sought them out. But once he realized the FBS programs weren’t offering, he decided to take matters in his own hands.
Herron initially advised Payne to take a scholarship and that he could still succeed and earn plenty of playing time. Payne thanked Herron for the advice but told his head coach he wanted to test whether he could make it in the SEC.
Herron came around on the plan.
“Christian, I think you can, you certainly think you can, so we’ll pursue that,” Herron told him.
Having grown up in Athens, Payne’s childhood dream was to play for Georgia. Herron helped initiate a preferred walk-on spot for Payne through former director of on-campus recruiting Daryl Jones. From there, Payne joined the team as an inside linebacker before a concussion ended former Georgia fullback Merritt Hall’s career last August.
Georgia moved Payne to fullback and liked what they saw. Former offensive coordinator Mike Bobo even sent Herron a text message stating that Payne was practicing like he could one day be a starter.
Payne got some playing time a year ago, appearing in seven games with one start.
“Sometimes kids get lost in the shuffle,” Herron said. “I think he still wants to prove to those that didn’t recruit him they should have.”
As the lead blocker on offense, Payne routinely will clash with the inside linebackers on lead plays in practice. Senior Jake Ganus said he’ll take on Payne a couple of times per practice and that he’s a tough player to shed.
“You know when he’s coming he’s going to bring it,” Ganus said.
While Payne’s the top fullback for Georgia at the moment, he knows that anything can happen in this sport, especially at this level.
“I guess I am the projected starter,” he said. “But I try to act like it’s not there and just keep working hard.”