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August 10, 2022

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Phillip Payne not likely to fade in UNLV’s new offensive system

Junior preseason All-MWC selection enjoying role as leader of raw receiving corps

UNLV BYU Football

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV wide receiver Phillip Payne reaches for an Omar Clayton pass against BYU on Oct. 10, 2009, at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The day that Bobby Hauck was hired as UNLV's head football coach, junior receiver Phillip Payne — the top returning offensive threat from back-to-back 5-7 teams — started in on some research.

"We saw that they threw for a lot of yards at Montana," Payne said. "We figure (the receivers) are gonna get the ball, but we're also going to run the ball more, which will help us be more balanced."

Could a more-balanced offense mean the Rebels' wide open, quick-strike tendencies from recent years within the spread offense are gone for good?

Payne, who recently was voted by the media to the preseason All-Mountain West roster, knew that wouldn't be the case right away after doing some homework.

In fact, of 118 teams in the Football Championship Subdivision ranks, Montana was 14th in 2009 in passing offense, averaging 267.2 yards per game through the air.

"There's this talk that we're out of the spread and into this game-control thing," said offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie, who held the same post at Montana from 2003-09. "But game control is holding onto the ball, whether you run it or throw it. Hopefully, that gives us some matchups outside with Phil that we like. If a defense wants to open up and spread out, that opens up some running lanes."

Phenicie knew of Payne even before coming to Las Vegas with Hauck, as he tried recruiting the Western High product up to Montana.

They wanted him back then for the same reason they prize him now.

"We'll do some things specifically for him and around him," Phenicie added. "He fits into our system just as well as he fits into any system.

"We feel it may take some pressure off of the run game, and that's good."

Payne's UNLV career so far has proven that covering him can be a tough task for opposing defenses.

In 2008, his freshman season was cut short because of a concussion suffered at BYU, but in just nine games he made himself a household name in MWC country. That emergence started in his third collegiate game, making a SportsCenter-worthy catch late to help the Rebels upset Arizona State on the road, followed by a game-winning TD catch in overtime a week later against Iowa State.

Last season, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Payne had to evolve into more than just a player looked at as a red-zone threat and succeeded, catching seven touchdown passes for the second consecutive season while hauling in 58 balls for 661 yards.

The evolution is expected to continue now in ways other than numbers.

As a freshman, he was a sidekick to veterans Casey Flair and Ryan Wolfe, while as a sophomore, Payne fell in line behind Wolfe, who was the unquestioned leader of a veteran receiving corps.

"Now I'm going first in all of the drills," Payne said of his new role as the group's top dog.

Payne said he feels ready to lead by example based on what he's learned from the past two years' leaders.

It's needed, as behind him and fellow junior Michael Johnson (43 catches in 2009), the most experienced receiver in a thin group is sophomore Mark Barefield, who caught three passes in 12 games last season.

Payne believes the new offensive system could make it easier for him to lead by numbers and live up to his All-MWC billing.

"There were times last year where we'd throw the ball the whole drive," he said, adding that defenses began loading up against it regularly. "Now the run game will balance it out. There will be more single coverages."

Instead of being mostly an outside threat, it's been strongly hinted through drills in spring practices and the first couple of fall sessions that Payne will see the middle of the field more, and should have the ball in his hands just as much as — if not more than — before.

Payne added that receiver responsibilities are expanding further this season, as the boost in the run game will also require better perimeter and downfield blocking.

Being made a preseason all-league selection won't exempt him from doing the dirty work, and no one knows that more than Payne.

"I looked more into us being picked eighth (in the preseason poll) than me being All-Mountain West Conference," he said. "We're going to surprise some people."

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