ATHENS — Remember that whole thing about Kirby Smart saying he’s “not a fullback guy?” Well, he wants to take that back.
Christian Payne is making him.
Payne’s performance in Georgia’s season-opening win over North Carolina left the Bulldogs’ new head coach eating his words.
“A while back, when I said we weren’t going to use fullbacks, he was mad at me,” Smart joked. “So he took it out on me during the game.”
Smart said that Payne “in our mind was the player of the game” as Nick Chubb rolled up 222 yards rushing and the Bulldogs ran for a total of 298 in the 33-24 win over the Tar Heels.
“So it’s good he got noticed because we think a lot of him,” Smart said. “He practices really hard, and he gets no credit. But he really played well. He played physical and did a lot of good things on the tape. That’s why we rewarded him as one of the offensive players of the week. He does that every day, so it’s no surprise to me. But he does have great value in this offense with what he does.”
The whole “fullback controversy” with Smart goes back to this past summer when the new head coach was on the UGA Days speaking tour. He first mentioned he was “not a fullback guy” in Macon, then expounded on it when asked again a day later in Columbus.
“What does a fullback do?” Smart said. “Blocks, sometimes catches a pass. What does a tight end do? Same. I’m more of a tight end guy than a fullback guy.”
Therefore, Smart explained, he probably wouldn’t be signing a lot of fullbacks in recruiting in the future.
“If you look at the course of scholarships in the SEC, I don’t think you’ll find a whole lot of fullbacks who were signed to be fullbacks,” Smart said. “You’ll find tailbacks that were converted. You’ll find O-linemen that might be converted who could run.”
Payne is, indeed, a walk-on who played at Prince Avenue Christian School. He was awarded a scholarship last year. It’s unknown whether he is still receiving aid.
Payne acknowledged that he and his fellow fullbacks did take notice of Smart’s comments regarding their position last summer. But they were undeterred by it.
“I try not to harp on that too much,” said Payne, a 6-foot-1, 232-pound junior. “… You kind of wonder what happens; the media takes stuff out of context all the time. But I really wasn’t worried about it. I knew that coach Smart had full confidence in me as a player. It was just fun to go out there and get a win.”
If knocking defenders on their backside is fun, Payne was having a blast Saturday. He can be seen on the game video driving a defensive end five yards off the ball and pancaking him on Georgia’s first offensive possession. On “a wildcat keeper” by Terry Godwin, Payne picks up a defensive back and drives him 10 yards down the field. He upends a defender on Brian Herrien’s 19-yard touchdown run. On another first-down run by Chubb, it was Payne’s helmet that could be seen rolling through the North Carolina end zone after he sealed UNC cornerback Des Lawrence to the inside and kept him out of the play.
“It’s always fun blocking for Nick,” Payne said. “Nick can make me as a blocker look a lot better than I actually am sometimes. It’s fun blocking for him. He’s a great back.”
Payne’s pretty good at doing what he does, too. Teammates like to refer to it as running behind “the Payne Train.”
“Christian does an amazing job,” tight end Jeb Blazevich said. “It’s funny, going into camp you started seeing more tight ends and not as many fullbacks. But we started get closer to game time, and Payne continued to show what he was able to do. Sure enough, he had an amazing game.”
And it appears he’ll continue to do it. He started at fullback and was on the field for the first offensive play Saturday. He remains one of the “ORs” on this week’s depth chart, though it follows that he’d likely start — if, that is, the Bulldogs go with a fullback on the opening play.
Payne was on the field Saturday with as many as three tight ends at a time.
“I just try to go out there and do my job, play my best, you know, when my number is called,” Payne said. “I just try to do my best on the field.”
Chances are good he’ll be out there again.