TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When Marcus Spears wants to know something about an Alabama football player, he goes to the person whom he believes has the best feel for the pulse of the Crimson Tide. And it’s not his former coach, Nick Saban.
It’s Scott Cochran, who spends more time with the players than anyone. So when Alabama’s strength and conditioning guru said the following about junior defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, the answer more than got Spears’ attention.
“He told me he’s ready for a breakout,” said Spears, an ESPN and SEC Network analyst.
Make that a big breakout, if for no other reason than Payne’s size.
A two-year contributor who started in the middle of the Crimson Tide’s impressive defensive line last season, Payne was already pretty impressive. Alabama led the nation in rushing defense in 2016, and playing alongside Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, Payne often was overlooked despite being a force in the interior.
This year, though, he’s leading the unit, which could be a strength of the defense, even though he’s the only returning starter.
“Big, physical beast,” Spears said. “Kind of a vintage SEC defensive lineman.”
Just being a vintage Saban defensive lineman would put him in elite company, as the coach has always considered the line a priority. Alabama’s prominent players there have included Allen, Marcell Dareus, A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Terrence Cody.
Saban’s previous teams had similar standouts. In addition to Spears at LSU, there was Chad Lavalais and Glenn Dorsey. Michigan State had Robaire Smith.
Payne fits in with all of them, and is already drawing some comparisons — especially to Dareus, the third pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
“Super athletic, super strong,” Spears said. “One of those big old bruisers that we’re used to seeing over there. Suprisingly more athletic than I thought he would be.”
A couple of months ago Spears did a sit-down with the preseason All-SEC selection, the thinking being that the Saban products might have more in common than they knew, even though Spears was a defensive end and Payne is more of a clogger in the middle. Statistically, Spears was in position to make plays, and another way it showed was how they scored defensive touchdowns.
Spears had a 35-yard interception return against Mississippi State, while Payne grabbed a loose ball near the end zone at Ole Miss and was credited with a 3-yard score.
“I need another touchdown to add to my collection,” Payne half-joked, although not about Alabama’s turnover-scoring ways. The Tide scored 15 non-offensive touchdowns last season. “It’s really a competition to see who’s going to get the ball out.
“We’re going to try to do it again.”
The two did find a lot of common ground, including the fact that they both had played tight end and both turned heads on a basketball court. Spears was quite the prospect in that sport as well.
“I was, ‘Man, you’re supposed to be a nose tackle,’ ” Spears said.
“He was, ‘Man, I can dunk.’ ”
Payne meant now. That’s despite being able to bench 550 pounds, squatting “six-something,” and being able to run the 40-yard dash in about 5 seconds — like 5-flat, not 5.99.
Those are eye-popping numbers for a lineman, which should make him a prime prospect for next year’s NFL draft. Spears was listed at 6-foot-4, 298 pounds at LSU. Payne is 6-2 and says his weight is down from 319 to 308, which was his target weight during the offseason in hopes of staying on the field more as a three-down option.
“He’s really worked hard in the offseason,” defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said.
However, the thing that really stuck with Spears was their session didn’t end up being one-sided. Payne started to pick his brain, asking him about positioning on the line, what to look for and how to adjust, and ways to improve in Saban’s system.
Spears walked away impressed.
Payne left after gaining another mentor, one who was a consensus All-American in 2004 and first-round NFL draft pick.
“He’s a pretty cool guy,” Payne said. “I really enjoyed that conversation.
“When I was growing up I always looked at Marcell, guys like Nick Fairley, Ndamukong Suh and do what they did. When you watch film on them you sort of pick up their habits and try and imitate what they did.”
The thing is, Payne has the kind of potential to be like those guys. He’s next up, and aided by ends such as Da’Shawn Hand and Raekwon Davis, and another strong front seven, he’s beginning to figure out how good he can be.
“Not yet,” he said about comparisons to other prominent names. “But I’m trying to get there.”
Marcus Spears at LSU