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Following a slow start, Payne hoping to kick-start senior season against Hawaii

Senior receiver has produced in a big way in two career meetings with Warriors

Phillip Payne

Steve Marcus

Wide receiver Phillip Payne works out with his UNLV teammates on the first day of spring football practice at Rebel Park Monday, February 28, 2011.

Rebels defense to be put to test against Hawaii

KSNV previews UNLV vs. Hawaii football game Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium, Sept. 13, 2011.

The Rebel Room

Here come's Hawaii

Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer take a closer look at this weekend's UNLV home opener at Sam Boyd Stadium, as the struggling Rebels defense will hardly have a soft landing from its two tough road trips, welcoming in the always prolific Hawaii Warriors for a Saturday night showdown. Does UNLV have a chance? What type of result would be considered a success?

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UNLV wide receiver Phillip Payne pulls in the game-winning touchdown over Hawaii's Tank Hopkins late in the fourth quarter in the Rebels' 34-33 victory at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009.

Phillip Payne closed out Wednesday's UNLV football practice at Rebel Park how only Phillip Payne can.

In an 11-on-11 drill, backup quarterback Sean Reilly floated a deep ball to the right side of the end zone, where the 6-foot-3 senior wideout was one-on-one against junior cornerback Ken Spigner. As he's done seemingly a thousand times, Payne timed his leap perfectly and twisted his body in order to haul in a ball that, until the second it was caught, looked uncatchable.

The catch caused an eruption from Payne's teammates, and if he's able to work some of his magic this Saturday in UNLV's home opener against Hawaii, it could have the same effect on a team in need of a lift.

Payne, one of the nation's top red zone threats over the last three season, was a preseason All-Mountain West selection for the second year in a row but is off to a bit of a slow start, with five catches for 32 yards and one touchdown in the Rebels' first two games.

That trend could change at any moment.

"A lot of it is we're trying to get our run game going," offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie said. "I can tell you Washington State saw something from the Wisconsin game. We had some things in there that they worked to take away. We've got to use him more."

Four of Payne's five receptions came in that game at Wisconsin, where he was targeted by sophomore quarterback Caleb Herring many more times than he was in last weekend's unsightly 59-7 blowout loss in Pullman, Wash. Coincidentally, UNLV averaged 3.8 yards per carry in 38 attempts against Wisconsin, then just 2.8 in 34 rushes at Washington State.

Against the Cougars, things snowballed in the wrong direction for the young UNLV offense. The offensive line struggled, which took away the ability to run the ball effectively. Without a strong run game, the offense got off-balance as a whole, and as the Cougars sent more pressure, Herring was made uncomfortable for much of the afternoon.

Much of the talk since last weekend has been about UNLV's deep and numerous issues on defense, but if history proves anything, it's that the Rebels' offense might be able to bounce back some against Hawaii.

If the Rebels do, Payne will, too.

In a 59-21 loss in Honolulu in the 2010 season finale, the Rebels managed to pick up 18 first downs and 295 yards of total offense. In that game, Payne had six catches for 84 yards and a score. In a 34-33 thriller at Sam Boyd Stadium in 2009, Payne caught eight balls for 94 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-winner from 15 yards out with just 36 seconds left in regulation.

To boot, Payne has done much of his work in those Hawaii meetings against senior cornerback Tank Hopkins, who he'll likely see plenty of this weekend.

"He's back out there, so I'm definitely ready for him. I'm on my toes, ready for him to come at me this game," Payne said. "I feel like (the offense) is making strides in the right direction. Of course I want to have the ball in my hands, but I feel like we're fine. We're just young.

"I feel like with the progression of the run game, it's going to make defenses have to play up more. Eventually, we'll have to go over the top to keep people honest. Once we get the run game going, we'll be all right."

Payne's struggles early last season had more to do with him mentally adapting to a run-heavy offense after starring in a shotgun spread offense his first two seasons on campus.

Toward the end of last year, he not only found a niche in Bobby Hauck's offense as a pass-catcher, but as more of a well-rounded player than he'd ever shown he could be.

"In the spread offense, you would have to block, but not as much as you do in the run offense," he said. "My footwork with my blocking is much better than it used to be."

Payne also added that his willingness to block has come a long way, which has kept him in the coaching staff's good graces. He said he realized during the 2010 campaign that if he didn't contribute in that capacity to the run game, he wasn't going to play and get balls thrown his way, no matter how much he'd proven under the previous regime.

Payne then lost a good chunk of this summer and some of UNLV's fall camp while recovering from a broken left foot. He sat most of Saturday's second half at Washington State to avoid risking damage to it, as he said he's still dealing with some residual soreness from time to time.

It was a good opportunity to pull Payne, as the game was out of hand by late in the second quarter. Plus, even though the season has started poorly for UNLV, they know that Payne will be needed down the line.

"Potentially, he gets us some chunk plays," Phenicie said, referring to pass plays netting between 10 and 20 yards. "We've got to make a concerted effort to do that."

The numbers will likely come for Payne, who is hoping to go out strong and possibly set himself up for a chance in an NFL training camp next summer. His acrobatic TD catch at Wisconsin on Sept. 1 was the 20th of his UNLV career, tying him for third on the school's all-time list and putting him four behind Henry Bailey for the all-time mark. By the end of the season, he'll also likely crack the program's all-time top 10 in receptions and receiving yards.

He might just need a moment this weekend like the one in Wednesday's practice to get things kick-started.

"I feel like if I keep doing the little things, the stats will come," he said. "If I keep blocking and running my routes the right way, it'll come. That's what my coaches tell me all the time. I'll be all right."

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