ATHENS – You could have a pretty good debate about what player would be Georgia’s offensive MVP a quarter of the way into the 2016 season: Nick Chubb, though he has found the going tougher lately; Jacob Eason, who is growing up fast as a freshman quarterback; Isaiah McKenzie, the play-maker extraordinaire; or fullback Christian Payne.
OK, Payne might be a bit of a stretch, but the junior fullback from Athens is definitely playing a big role in the Bulldogs’ offense.
Payne was Eason’s second-favorite target in the Missouri game this past weekend. He hauled in five passes for 41 yards and scored the first touchdown of his career as the Bulldogs came from behind for a 28-27 victory.
“The phone was blowing up quite a bit, yeah,” Payne said of friends and family after his 2-yard scoring catch, which came early in the second quarter. “It was great, first touchdown. I didn’t really have time to even celebrate. I had to concentrate on catching the ball. I didn’t want to drop it.”
Payne’s primary responsibility will continue to be serving as a lead blocker for Chubb and Georgia’s other tailbacks. But utilizing him in the flat against Missouri and its hard-charging perimeter defenders was a big part of the Bulldogs’ game plan this past Saturday. And it likely will be this coming Saturday when UGA visits Ole Miss is its hard-charging “Landshark” defense.
Payne had been targeted on such passes a few other times earlier this season, but hadn’t been able to connect until Saturday. The five receptions were his first of the season. He had four all last year. His long gain Saturday went for 19 yards.
“You know, it’s a good play,” said Payne, who releases to the outside after chip-blocking an end. “It’s been a good play in camp, going through practice. When Coach (Jim) Chaney sees it’s working, he’s going to continue to call it.”
It’s somewhat ironic that Payne has played such a big role in the offense. Earlier this summer, head coach Kirby Smart admitted he was “more of a tight end guy than a fullback guy” and didn’t envision utilizing the position a lot in the offense or making them a priority in recruiting.
Nevertheless, Payne has found himself not only on the field a lot, but also in the game plan.
“It definitely feels like you’re included in the offense,” Payne said.
Smart said Monday that Payne actually hasn’t played as well the last two games as he did in the opener against North Carolina, when Chubb had 222 yards rushing. But he continues to praise Payne’s hard work and conscientious attitude.
“He has caught the ball out of the backfield very effectively, and he is a tough, hard-nosed player that plays as hard as he can,” Smart said. “We’ve got to do a better job with him of getting some movement on people and creating some space in the run game. I think he knows that. That’s a challenge for him and he’ll continue to work at it.”
To be sure, that’s where Payne’s focus is, on creating running room for Chubb, Sony Michel and the other tailbacks. Georgia has struggled in that regard the last two weeks. Georgia rushed for only 101 yards rushing as a team against Missouri, Chubb had only 63 yards on 19 carries and 143 total rushing yards in the last two.
“Like I always say, it always comes down to how we do and how we execute,” Payne said. “It’s not as much about what the other defense is doing, it’s about what we can do. When we can execute it in practice over and over again, we feel good about our plays and stuff like that, and we’ll be able to go out and execute it during the game. That’s what we’re working on.”
But when the run-game runs into problems, the Bulldogs know they can turn to Payne in the flat. That’s what they did when the Tigers loaded the box with defenders as Georgia faced first-and-goal from the 2.
Payne was wide open in the right side of the end zone and Eason’s pass was on the money.
“I am very proud of him that he caught most of the balls thrown to him,” Smart said. “It gave us a different element in the pass game.”