Chances are if you were to poll fans of the USFL, about who they believed the best linebacker in the USFL was in 2022 I have no doubt you would hear one name come up frequently. That name is Donald Payne Jr. Say what you will about the Gamblers’ record as a team, but one thing no true football fan can deny is that their defense was extremely talented, starting with this man.
Defensive Player of the Year Candidate
Payne came into the USFL with one goal in mind, and he isn’t shy about telling anyone. “I came here to get back into the NFL.” He has zero intentions of staying in the USFL long term, given his performance this season I would venture a guess that NFL teams are already calling. Let me interject that Payne doesn’t say this as a knock on the USFL, if anything the opposite is true.
Donald Payne knows he is an NFL talent, but when the time came for him to prove himself at that level, the ONLY league he would even consider was the USFL. This is a testament to what Fox and Brian Woods have built. They have developed a league that looks and feels like NFL-style play. Granted some have said that the USFL is just the “NFL Lite” so to speak and that the XFL will be more of the same, but the fact is, the leagues that keep their gameplay closer to the NFL will attract the biggest name players.
Confidence is key for any player that wants to compete at the NFL level, this same confidence can be misconstrued at times but context is important. Donald Payne Jr is an incredible athlete that truly showed how multifaceted he can be on the field in 2022, but his performance and this confidence began much earlier than the 2022 season.
Top End Athlete Since High School
Often when you put the microscope on many of these players at the NFL level, you’ll see they played many different positions in high school. A lot of times their team recognizes their physical talent right away, and rather than forcing them into a single role, they simply give them a shot anywhere they fit.
For Payne, it was no different. In High school, he racked up an unbelievable stat line in his first 14 games ever competing at this level while leading his team to a 12-2 record. It was clear immediately Payne was an exceptional athlete that belonged on the football field.
After showing as a freshman he was the best player on the team, the team relied on him heavily nearly every week. He would go on to have an impressive high school career, which led him to a brand new football program being started at Stetson University. At Stetson Payne got to focus on his favorite side of the ball, defense. This time he entered college as a cornerback after playing wide receiver, running back, defensive back, and linebacker in high school.
Developing the Perfect Role for Payne
The way Stetson chose to start their program was to bring in 120 freshmen all at once and redshirt them in season one. This would give the program a year to develop everything it had in place before trying to compete at the NCAA level.
With that being said over the first two seasons at Stetson Payne moved around a little bit, playing in the box, lining up as a cornerback, and then eventually finding a home at the “Dog” Safety position. Dog Safety was their version of a hybrid safety/linebacker type role. This role suited the skillset Payne brought to the table impeccably.
When asked if this position is the perfect role for him Payne replies: “1000%, if there was a 3-3-5 defense in the NFL that’s where I would want to be.” Luckily for Payne, things have changed a bit in the NFL since he was signed as an undrafted free agent five years ago. In today’s NFL, you have tight ends, and running backs that run like wide receivers and Donald Payne is the exact type of athlete you want at weakside linebacker or middle linebacker to cover these new hybrid-type players.
As mentioned before Payne got his start as a professional player in the NFL, he originally signed with the Baltimore Ravens where he worked with some of the most well-respected coaches in the game on the defensive side of the ball. Wink Martindale, Dean Pees, Mike Macdonald, and Zach Orr a former linebacker himself.
This helped him transition from that hybrid position where he still had many safety responsibilities to linebacker, but the transition wasn’t always an easy one. After 5 months in camp with the Ravens, he was told he would be relegated to the practice squad. Which made sense, a rookie changing positions with immense athletic potential at his new position? A prime candidate for the practice squad.
However, when he was approached by “the Turk” or the man who is sent to fetch players to be outright released, Payne fears the worst. “man they don’t even want me for the practice squad anymore?” The fact is the news wound up to be much better. “Well, the bad news is that you won’t be a Baltimore Raven. The good news is that the Jacksonville Jaguars claimed you on waivers” This meant an opportunity to be on an active 53-man roster instead of waiting his turn to get called up on the practice squad.
Jacksonville His New Home
He would be an integral part of the Jaguar’s AFC Championship run, being used as their designated special teams ace. When asked about how he felt about his role with the team, Payne said “it was kind of surreal people would be like oh, that’s our special teams ace”. He collected 16 tackles on special teams again showing his nose for the ball, and his speed and athleticism to get to the ball carrier.
This solidified his role with the team and he would ultimately stick with the Jaguars for the 2018 season. Finishing the season on injured reserve due to a knee injury, he would go on to be released in May of 2019. This led him back to his first-ever home in the NFL. Baltimore. The Ravens, now led by former LB coach, and now defensive coordinator Wink Martindale resigned Payne.
He spent two weeks on the active roster and then moved down to the practice squad for another short stretch before the Ravens again cut him loose. It would be another month before Payne was offered a contract. It was none other than Jacksonville. The Jaguars had suffered injuries at linebacker and needed someone who knew the system and could play special teams.
Chance To Start
Payne returned to Jacksonville mid-season, but only a month later, the coaches asked him to step in as a starter for the last 5 weeks of the season. In just 9 games Payne racked up 61 tackles, 1 sack, 1 pass deflection, and 1 fumble recovery. He felt this meant he would be in the plans going forward for the Jaguars.
Journeyman for the First Time
Despite this performance, he wasn’t offered a contract from the Jaguars in the 2019 season, this time he instead was signed by Washington. This began a stint in his career in which he would play with three different teams in just two seasons. With brief stops in Washington, Miami, and San Francisco. However as he signed each deal, it seemed each stay got shorter.
This eventually led to him being out of the league following his time with DeMeco Ryans and the 49ers. At first, the USFL, and other spring football leagues were not on his radar. He believed, and rightfully so that he deserved another deal in the NFL.
As time ticked by that thought slowly morphed into a consideration. Then from consideration into reality as he and his agent decided it was time to remind the world exactly what Donald Payne Jr. can do on the football field.
Ironically during our interview, I asked Donald how teams approached it, and he mentioned being contacted by Birmingham. A member of the Stallions had told him that it looked like they were going to select him, only they never pulled the trigger.
After this, he of course was drafted in round three of the linebacker portion of the draft, by Houston. When asked if he had any connections OR even contact with the coaches for the Gamblers before the draft he is quick to say no. He ends up revealing that he found out he had been drafted when a video of Kevin Sumlin announcing the pick was posted to Twitter.
Following his selection as the third linebacker drafted by the Gamblers organization and nearly out of the third round entirely, Payne again felt as if he had missed something. His on-field production rivaled or was better than most other players in the league, he has never been an off-field issue, and his health hasn’t been terrible either.
That’s when his agent finds out that many of these coaches have coached in various spring leagues before, and had decided to select players they knew well. Payne, a career NFL player to this point had little connection to any coaching staff in the league. Despite this, he landed with former NFL coach Tim Lewis.
Ready to Dominate
Payne was ready to dominate the USFL, and achieve his one goal, get back to the NFL. He came out of the gate fast with 34 tackles in the first two games alone. Despite this, it wasn’t until week 7 that he won a Defensive Player of the Week award and later won a second in week 10. Which by the way comes with a sweet pair of custom Nikes each time you win which he shows us in the interview.
Payne goes on to collect 117 tackles, 6 for a loss, 7 pass deflections, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery as well as 2 touchdown returns. Considering he played in just 10 games, this is as good as it gets for a USFL linebacker. Payne had 27 more tackles than his nearest counterpart current construction manager Frank Ginda who collected 90 tackles.
Payne was again recognized as an All-USFL linebacker, but narrowly missed winning the Defensive Player of the Year award as it went to teammate Chris Odom who led the league with 12.5 sacks. Payne achieved his first goal to showcase himself as a player, now can he achieve the ultimate goal when he puts pen to paper on an NFL deal??
Houston as a Hub?
I was able to ask Payne his thoughts on Birmingham as a hub, and if Houston would have offered a better option. Payne was very candid on this question. He quickly answered that attendance-wise yes would have likely been the better option. However, he said the USFL may have had a benefit to being in Birmingham.
The lack of developed nightlife. Payne jokes that TMZ might have been doing scoops on USFL players had Houston been chosen in year one. However, with expansion on the table heading into year 2, I would say that Houston is the first logical choice for the second southern hub if we wind up with more than two locations in 2023, and beyond.
Stay with USFL News Hub all off season.