In his first two years at UNLV, Phillip Payne learned what it takes to be a leader on the football field. Now he’s applying those lessons to his own game.
The wide receiver had the luxury of playing last season alongside Ryan Wolfe, the Rebels’ all-time leading pass catcher, and his freshman year with Wolfe and Casey Flair, who is second on the career receptions list. Their presence helped take much of the pressure off of Payne, and they also showed their young teammate what it takes to get better.
This season it is Payne who is drawing major attention, being named to the preseason All-Mountain West Conference team, and being looked upon to show the way for a relatively inexperienced corps of receivers. And the junior from Western High School says that’s fine with him.
“Casey, he brought me in when I got here and showed me the ropes,” Payne says. “And last year, Ryan, he taught me to lead by example. So by me going first in line [during drills] and just trying to do the little things, I’m just trying to lead by example for the rest of the receivers.”
Despite playing with such talented receivers the past two years, Payne has definitely earned a reputation as a serious threat on his own, catching 87 passes for 1,097 yards and 14 touchdowns, including a memorable leaping, one-handed TD grab while falling backward in his third collegiate game to help the Rebels gain a road upset of Arizona State, and a game-winning catch in overtime the following week against Iowa State.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 205-pound Payne has great hands and amazing leaping ability, accounting for his red-zone success, but in his attempt to become a more well-rounded receiver, he has been concentrating on running better pass routes and focusing mentally, something he struggled with during preseason camp until new UNLV coach Bobby Hauck intervened.
“There were times when I just got down at camp and had to force myself to pick it up,” Payne says. “And [Coach] gave me a pep talk. He told me that everybody else looks up to me. He said it starts with me.”
While Hauck is still learning about the players he inherited, he likes what he has seen in Payne thus far.
“It was a tough camp, and he fought through it, which was good,” Hauck says. “He had a decent offseason; it looked like he worked hard over the summer. It would be good for our team if he could keep progressing and have a good year.”
Payne is embracing the coach’s philosophy, especially after disappointing 5-7 seasons in each of his first two years at UNLV. In fact, when asked what his personal goals are this season, the Las Vegan didn’t mention anything about catches, receiving yards or touchdowns. Instead he cited one thing: making it to a bowl game. “Winning is the big goal,” he says.
Payne says he has already sensed a change in the football program since Hauck was hired in December to replace Mark Sanford.
“He’s definitely more honest. He pushes us more,” Payne says. “He’s definitely more into it, more hands-on. He definitely makes us work harder. … There’s more of a work ethic. We’re a more blue-collar team than we were last year.”
The Rebels will get a tough test immediately when they face No. 12 Wisconsin on Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium, and after catching 58 passes for 661 yards and seven TDs last season, Payne is bound to get a lot of attention from Badgers defenders. It’s something he will have to get used to.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “If teams are going to double-team me, that’s going to open it up for the other receivers. … And it’s going to help the run, too. I feel like if I’m getting double-teamed, then I’m doing my job.”
RTC giving fans a lift for UNLV games
The Regional Transportation Commission is providing bus service to Sam Boyd Stadium for UNLV’s six home games on Routes 601 and 602 this season.
Buses will run about every 20 minutes for both routes. The RTC recommends that passengers buy a 24-hour pass for $5 to cover the round-trip to and from the stadium.
For more information, go to rtcsnv.com.