On Friday the Pittsburgh Steelers announced having held a tryout with Donald Payne, the former Stetson University Hatter who was once described as ‘The Troy Polamalu of FCS Football.’
Payne, 26, isn’t a strong safety; he plays inside linebacker—at least that’s the position he has played in the NFL—but at 5-foot-11 and 217 pounds, he’s similar in size to Troy Polamalu. He also seems to have a knack for making tackles—and making big plays.
Lightly recruited by college football programs, Payne decided to help (re)start a program at Stetson University in Florida, which plays in the Pioneer Football League, a league that includes (mostly) basketball-oriented schools like Davidson, Morehead State, Dayton, Valparaiso, Butler, Drake and Marist.
During his four-year career as a defensive back at Stetson (2013-16), he was a three-time All-American and finished as the third-leading tackler in Division I (FCS/FBS) history with a remarkable 538 tackles, including 65.5 tackles for loss. He also authored 14 sacks, forced seven fumbles, had eight fumble recoveries and nine interceptions, and scored five touchdowns on defense or special teams.
Donald Payne’s NFL Journey
Despite his success in college, Payne went undrafted and signed with the Baltimore Ravens after the 2017 NFL Draft. The Ravens released him after the 2017 preseason, even after he made nine tackles in Baltimore’s final preseason game.
He went on to spend most of the next three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he became a standout special teamer, finishing third in the NFL in special teams tackles in 2017.
In 2019 he got the chance to start a series of games at middle linebacker—and as always—he made plays. In nine games with the Jags (five starts) he was credited with 61 tackles (36 solo), including three tackles for loss, one sack, one quarterback hit and one fumble recovery.
This past summer he signed a one-year contract with Washington, and during the 2020 season he has been a part of the practice squads of both Washington Football Team and the Miami Dolphins, the latter of whom released him on November 23rd. Hence his tryout with Pittsburgh, which is in need of inside linebacker help thanks to the knee injuries suffered by Devin Bush and Robert Spillane, not to mention Vince Williams’ second stint on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
Steelers COVID-19 List Update
At the moment, Williams is the only Steelers player on the COVID-19 list. On Friday, starting center Maurkice Pouncey was activated off the list, having missed the last two games (against Baltimore or Washington), which were started by backup center J.C. Hassenauer.
On Wednesday, Pittsburgh’s No. 1 running back, James Conner, was activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list, meaning both Conner and Pouncey are eligible to play on Sunday, providing a potential boost to the team’s moribund running game, which produced a total of 21 yards in its last contest (versus Washington). A week earlier, the Steelers produced just 68 rushing yards against a shorthanded Ravens defense.
In ten games this year, Conner has 145 carries for 645 yards and five rushing touchdowns.
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