Monday, Aug. 11, 2008 | 4:43 p.m.
ELY - Did you hear the one about Phillip Payne throwing a football over the mountains here in Ely?
OK, that one's not true.
But the freshman receiver's stature during UNLV's preseason camp is starting to grow to those proportions. That's what catching fade pass after fade pass in the corner of the end zone can do for you.
Monday morning, for the second straight practice in the secluded mountain town, the Rebels' first- and second-team offensive units got the better of the squad's top two defensive groups in various red zone drills, showing that maybe -- just maybe -- last year's scoring struggles inside the opposition's 20 could be a thing of the past.
"I think there's a good news-bad news scenario to that," head coach Mike Sanford said following Monday's morning session. "We've got to score touchdowns in the red zone, and that's why you're seeing us work on it like we are. At the same time, the defense has got to stop them."
The two-hour practice finished with a pair of 11-on-11 red zone drills. First was a scrimmage setting without tackling, with the ball being lined up at the 24 yard line. In that one, Payne caught three straight fades in either corner of the end zone over three different defensive backs. The second of those came with Payne clutching the ball on top of the defender's helmet. The drill ended with Mike Clausen spotting Casey Flair over the middle with a rocket of a pass that Flair snagged over his head in full stride.
The intensity then turned up a bit, as the offense came through on consecutive third down plays as the 11-on-11 drill turned to full contact with the ball starting at the 23.
On the first possession -- the No. 2 offense against the No. 1 defense -- Clausen rolled to his left on third-and-nine to avoid a sack, floating a pass down the sideline and just over the head of defensive lineman Thor Pili. It was clutched by a soaring Michael Johnson. The freshman receiver -- all 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds of him -- made the acrobatic grab and was mobbed by teammates amidst steamed defenders ripping at their chin straps.
Next up -- with the No. 1 offense against the No. 2 defensive unit -- Frank Summers did a flip into the end zone to cap a 14-yard touchdown run on third-and-one.
For the final two series, the possessions were started at the 11. On the first of those, from six yards out, Clausen floated a fade to his left that was grabbed by -- you guessed it -- 6-foot-3 Phillip Payne. Omar Clayton two snaps later used a play-action fake to find Ryan Worthen wide open for another score.
"We had a bunch of people step up today and make some plays, especially Phillip, made some plays in the red zone on some high balls," said junior receiver Ryan Wolfe. "He stepped up huge. I think the last few years we haven't thrown as many fade balls in the red zone as we would have liked to. I think coach (Todd) Berry said it best today -- we found a new toy to play with in the red zone."
Sanford made the declaration following Monday's practice in Ely that Payne, who a year ago was suiting up at Western High, will play as a freshman, barring any sort of injury.
He could prove to be key in the Rebs improving on last year's red zone numbers. In 2007, UNLV scored touchdowns only 15 times in 37 red zone tries, and 11 of those trips deep into opposing territory turned up empty-handed.
"He did the same thing at football camp," Sanford said of last summer's UNLV camp, which was followed with a scholarship offer. "And I think he hasn't had the luxury of the kind of quarterbacks we have to throw to him, too. And I think that's giving him a better opportunity to show his stuff."
Payne said that over just the last week and two days he's already learned plenty more about executing the fade route than he already knew. He said most of what he'd done before came from instinct and watching what NFLers such as Chad Johnson and Calvin Johnson do.
"I was taught to just get on top of (the defensive back) if he's shorter," Payne said. "Delay release so timing is right, and late hands, because the DB's back is turned, so if your hands are late, the time for him knocking it down is shortened."
Offensive coordinator Todd Berry also realizes that the ability Payne has shown - scoring TDs on eight of 10 fade passes thrown to him in Monday's practices combined - has to do with more than just techniques he's fine-tuned so far this month.
"That's kinda god given, I think - Some guys have got that ability to judge that ball in the air," Berry said. "His ability to judge the ball in the air is what separates him from everyone else. And that's not something that's coached. That's something that a guy can do, and that's what you go out and recruit."
Kicking battle gets underway
Sanford said a week ago that the race for who would be the team's primary field goal kicker would pick up once pads came in to play. It began to take some shape on Monday morning.
Junior Kyle Watson and sophomore Ben Jaekle each took three shots at 40-yard field goals at the end of practice. They came with live snaps, but no defenders on the other side of the offensive line. Each kicker missed their first attempt wide but both drilled the rest.
"That's going to be an ongoing evaluation, and we may go on up to game week before we decide that," Sanford said. "I would say we'll start (game-situation kicking) middle of this week towards the end of this week."
As for the punting game ...
Junior Brendon Lamers, expected to be the top dog in the race for the starting punter job, missed the majority of the morning practice with a left hip injury.
Sanford said Lamers strained the Iliotibial Band on the outer portion of his hip, and the severity has yet to be determined. He remained in pads for the rest of the two-hour practice, but mostly limped around and stretched some.
In his place, Watson and third-string quarterback Dack Ishii took the punting reps. Ishii, believe it or not, looked pretty darn good.
Black shirt update
Donning the black uniforms for Monday's practice -- rewards for outstanding Monday efforts -- were sophomore offensive lineman Matt Murphy and sophomore defensive tackle Malo Taumua.
Taumua also came into the day holding the Rebel Trophy, which is given from the previous winner to another teammate each day as another honor for thorough, hard work. Taumua took it Monday from Clayton, and said he has two candidates in mind for Tuesday, but would not disclose their identities.
One happy Tank
Frank Summers has shown a good amount of swagger so far in scrimmage drills, relishing his time in the end zone. After flipping into the back of paydirt in the morning practice (which during the season might draw a flag if deemed unnecessary by the refs), he galloped in for another score during the evening practice. While racing into the corner of the end zone, he let out a yell, and looked up at Football Program Director Sara Swanson, who was shooting photos a few feet away, and said 'Did you get that picture?!?!?!' Good times.
Pretty obvious. Just scroll back up to the top.
The Rebs practice Tuesday just once, going in the late morning in Ely.