LINCOLN — Despite Pheldarius Payne’s large frame and athleticism, the outside linebacker hasn’t reached his potential at Nebraska yet.
But with a full, healthy offseason in front of him, he can now see his ceiling and is pushing confidently toward it.
Payne transferred to Nebraska last year from Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania, but his development was stunted soon after he arrived by shoulder surgery and a case of COVID-19.
He spent two months rehabbing his shoulder with limited strength conditioning. That, combined with COVID, resulted in the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Payne losing 10 pounds by the start of the 2020 season.
He was already the lightest and shortest defensive lineman on NU’s roster before losing the weight, so Nebraska moved him to outside linebacker.
Not only did Payne have to learn a new position, but he also had to adjust to Big Ten football after two years in junior college. The transition was difficult at first, but Payne fought his way into the rotation and played in every game.
“I don’t think I did good, but it was better than expected because the speed level was the same between here and juco,” Payne said, “but the strength, you could definitely tell if you get your hand on a lineman or a tackle or a guard from Minnesota or Illinois, that’s different stuff.”
With a season of Big Ten experience, Payne now has high expectations.
“I expect a whole lot better because now I know the system and how things run,” he said. “I can just play, just run to the ball, make plays. Last year I was playing like a robot and just trying to not mess up, but now I know the plays so I can just run.”
Payne recorded 21 tackles, two for loss, one sack and two pass breakups last season. More comfort and confidence in Nebraska’s system will open up his abilities.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander agrees and said Payne is one of the athletes who can benefit the most from a full offseason.
“He was the guy that just needed a great summer and winter conditioning and he needed a big spring ball,” Chinander said. “So this will be a great year for him. He’s been through the program now. He’s healthy. He’s been in the weight room. He’s got a lot of reps this spring.”
Payne now has access to Nebraska’s nutrition program, a big step up from just grabbing something in the cafeteria as he did in junior college. An offseason with strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval will also help the linebacker reach his physical goals.
“At Lackawanna, there was a lot of good stuff in the weight room, but they can’t compare to Big Ten facilities,” Payne said. “Like night and day. It’s a big difference.”
Payne currently sits at 250 pounds, but this summer he wants to learn how to decrease his body fat percentage and increase his muscle mass.
“Another summer with Coach Duval, I think it would be great,” Payne said.
Payne has also been digesting the ins and outs of playing outside linebacker, tapping into the vast knowledge of position coach Mike Dawson. Payne also learned from Bill McGovern, who was a defensive analyst at NU last year before he moved on to the Chicago Bears.
“I thought football was just like X’s and O’s and just going,” Payne said, “but you can learn stuff from the line, like presnap and then after the snap and little movement that the line (does) ... I love working and learning.”
Payne’s first season didn’t pan out like he or his team expected, but he sees a bright future for the Huskers.
“I’m really excited because I’ve never seen a team like this,” he said. “Everyone pushes each other and everyone knows knowledge. If I need something, I can ask a DB and they’ll know, a D-lineman and they’ll know and vice versa.”