Considered one of the hardest-hitting safety prospects in America last year, Columbia High School product Chris Payne made it known early in the 2009 recruiting cycle that he was a “Gamecock for life” and would be punishing opponents for years to come as an in-the-box strong safety for the hometown school. His passion and exuberance for South Carolina football rubbed off on everyone he came into contact with, and his initiative to branch out and help recruit other top prospects to join him at USC played a direct role in the Gamecocks landing arguably one of the top signing classes in school history.
Payne, already a fan favorite because of his bone-crushing high school film and outgoing personality, appeared to be on the fast track to becoming a household name in Gamecock Nation when he signed his letter of intent with USC in February. However, Payne learned earlier this summer that his future at South Carolina will be delayed by a year because of some academic issues that prevented him from qualifying.
The athletic defensive back is now headed to Fork Union Military Academy this fall as a result.
GamecockAnthem.com spoke with Payne on Monday evening, and he made no excuses for his situation. But he vowed he will do whatever it takes to make it back to South Carolina and achieve his dream of playing for the garnet and black.
“I feel like if I’d done a little better here and there, I could’ve been in at Carolina right now. I made a mistake, and now I’ve got to make up for it,“ Payne said. “I’m going to get better. I’m going to do everything I need to do so I can get back to Carolina. There’s no question I’m still a Gamecock.”
Payne is set to head up to Fork Union, Virginia, home of FUMA, in mid-August, and he is already focused on what he plans to accomplish during his time at the renowned military academy.
“My goals, first of all, are to make sure I stay on top of my grades. I’m going to work hard and do what I need to do. Also, I’m going to be playing football up there, so I want to make sure I come back better as a football player.“
Another minor goal for Payne, who has drawn some comparisons to former USC safety Emanuel Cook, is to impress enough on the football field this fall to warrant an increase in his star ranking. The talented DB was rated as a three-star prospect on Scout.com last year, but history has shown that going to Fork Union and shining in the prep school ranks can result in a higher rating from the recruiting services.
“I’m going to get that fourth star. I’ve got to. I’m always trying to be the best,” he said with a smile.
One of the hardest parts about not making it to South Carolina this year for Payne is that he’ll be separated from his best friend and former Columbia High teammate Damario Jeffery, who is now enrolled at USC. However, Payne said he will be Jeffery’s biggest fan this season, and he believes Gamecock fans will appreciate the talents that Jeffery brings to the USC football team.
“Damario said he loves it there. He’s working hard and getting ready to play. I think he‘ll have a really good year,” said Payne. “Damario, for people that don’t know him, he’s a leader. He always leads by example on and off the field. I expect him to be aggressive, just like he was in high school. I expect him to keep going strong like that. He‘s going to make a big difference.”
Although Payne will be watching his future teammates from afar this season, he is excited about what they can accomplish and believes the 2009 Gamecocks will be a much different team from a year ago.
“They’ve got so many young players, I wouldn’t say I expect them to dominate, but I really think they’ll do better than last year. They’re going to play harder. I expect them to play harder and get after it. I don’t know how many wins and losses, I couldn’t tell you that. Anything can happen in the SEC, I just expect them to play with more effort and passion.”
Some have speculated that Payne may continue recruiting other prospects to USC for the current 2010 class, but when asked about that possibility, he noted that the current class is in good hands and insisted that his main goal this year is to focus on the task at hand.
“My goal this year is just to make it to South Carolina. In order for me to do that, I’ve got to work hard. I can’t really focus on recruiting guys and getting in contact with everybody like that this time. I feel the guys they’ve got now will keep in contact with the top prospects and let them know what we’re building at South Carolina.”
If all goes according to plan, Payne said he will enroll at USC for the first summer session next June. While that day is still nearly a year away, Payne has already set several goals for himself and the 2010 Gamecocks.
“Man, I just want to win. I want to win as many ball games as we can possibly win, and I want to win an SEC Championship. I feel like at South Carolina, we have the opportunity to do that with the players we have. That’ll be my expectations coming in next year,” he said emphatically. “When I get there, I hope I can compete for a starting spot. There’s no doubt in my mind I can if I come in and play how I’m supposed to. I’ll be ready to prove myself and show everyone that I am ready. I want to be the X-factor on defense. I’ll be ready.”
Payne, who is currently measuring in at 5-11 and 185 pounds, has been working hard to add muscle to his frame and increase his speed this summer. According to him, he has done just that.
“I’ve been running a lot and working out. I’ve definitely gotten stronger. I feel like I’ve got that extra step. I would say I’m probably running a 4.4, if not a little faster.”
The highlight of Payne’s summer came earlier this month when he traveled to Canton, Ohio for the inaugural IFAF Football Junior World Championships, where he helped lead the United States to a gold medal. According to Payne, that was an experience he’ll never forget.
“It was a great experience. I got to meet a lot of outstanding people, and to be able to represent my country like that was amazing. Being able to do that while playing the sport I love, I just loved the whole experience.” said Payne. “I think I performed real well. I made second team all-tournament. We came in and we felt like we were better than everybody. We just wanted to win the title for our country.”
While Payne will have to wait another year to make his debut in the garnet and black, he closed by giving Gamecock fans a taste of what they can expect from him when he takes the field at Williams-Brice Stadium next season.
“I’m going to bring a physical mindset. I’m a player that goes hard every play. I’m unique, I can light the bang in the box,” he said laughing. “I just like playing ball, and I love hitting. That’s what type player I am. I can play ball.”
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