Payne sees bright future on Rocky Top

WASHINGTON, D.C. --- Walter Payne admitted he allowed himself to daydream a bit.
Sitting inside Neyland Stadium during Tennessee's annual Orange & White Game on April 20 with his son, four-star cornerback and coveted Vols commitment D'Andre Payne, the elder Payne saw 61,000 fans, dozens of former UT players and the opportunity that awaited his son in a year.
"I did, I really did [envision D'Andre making plays]," Payne said. "I was telling my wife, 'I can see D'Andre making some big plays in this place.' I said the fans love him coming in as a top recruit, and I don't think he will let them down. I think it will be real special there."
D'Andre Payne also believes there's the potential for something special at Tennessee. It's why the heralded product of the DMV's Friendship Collegiate Academy pledged to the Vols the first week of April, stays in routine contact with several of his fellow commitments and also does plenty of peer recruiting. It's why the 5-foot-9, 177-pound Payne brings more than simply physicality and top-end speed to his position.
"I bring a lot of leadership, and I can put those guys on my back and we can go win some ballgames," Payne told outside FedEx Field, home of the NFL's Washington Redskins. "I've got good speed, good hips. I do my job and I make sure all the other guys do theirs.
"I love going down to Knoxville. I love spending time with all the guys that are already on the team or committed. I talk to Todd Kelly and Vic Wharton like every day and all the other recruits."
Payne's path to be one of those recruits covers his earliest days on Pop Warner fields to his national acclaim at amateur track and field competitions. He's played a number of positions on the gridiron and shows impressive ball skills, but Payne admits he relishes contact and competition.
Track meets took Payne to New Orleans, Detroit, the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest, among various locales. His heart took him to the football field.
"I started as safety, switched to running back and then my last year of Pop Warner I played corner and receiver; some years, they actually put me at linebacker. I was a hitter; I have to tell you that," Payne said. "But one of my coaches, he told me, 'When you get to high school, you're going to be a corner.''
"I ran track. I was a national champion, like five-time national champion in AAU and (U.S.) National Track. I ran the 100, 200 and I ran relay. I just focus on football more (now), but I still do track workouts so I can be in track shape. I'm just not doing the meets or anything."
Payne also isn't taking anything for granted in the classroom. His offer lists includes major college programs from coast to coast, including places like Stanford. But his father said he always dreamed of the SEC, and Payne also took seriously the need for academics.
"I'm really excited about that. I preach that. I was a pretty good student, but I was an average student because I didn't apply myself. That's one of the things I always told him I was going to stay on him about," Walter Payne said. "To make sure he did the best he could in school and didn't have any regrets in school. He took it and ran with it."
Added D'Andre Payne, "My family actually told me a lot [about handling recruiting]; my step-brother when he was coming out of high school, he was highly recruited. I got to learn a lot from him, and I took a lot from that in my recruiting process. Just respect the coaches, show them good character and keep my grades up. That's the first thing they look for when they start recruiting you. Academics can take you a long way; football is not going to last forever."
But Walter Payne, who said he realized at a young age his son's skill-set and work ethic could carry him to a college scholarship, said the decision to commit to Tennessee fit on several levels.
"I was excited," he said. "We went down to Tennessee in March, and just the love; I've never felt that family. I don't want to say I've never felt it like that, but it was just a little more from Tennessee. The coaching staff, it was like I knew them from Day 1. It was like I grew up with those guys. It was just really special.
"The facilities, the trainers, the technology, the academics side. His major, sports management, that he wants to major in. It was just everything. It was beautiful. Tennessee, playing football in the SEC. He's always wanted to play in the SEC, and it's just like a dream come true."