By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Keith Payne weighs 40 pounds more than UVa’s starting fullback, Max Milien.
Payne, for that matter, is heavier than most Division football players. That hasn’t stopped this super-sized tailback — Payne stands 6-3 — from becoming one of the better stories in Mike London’s first season as Virginia’s coach.
A former Oakton High School star, Payne is averaging 4.8 yards per carry and 67 per game, and he’s rushed for 8 touchdowns this season — all while carrying 255 pounds, give or take a burger.
“To me, he could stand to lose about maybe seven pounds, and he’s been getting down,” London said on his weekly Thursday teleconference with reporters. “The key thing is, he hasn’t been going up, and that’s been a little bit of an issue.”
To keep No. 22 from “ballooning,” as London put it, strength-and-conditioning coach Brandon Hourigan regularly puts Payne through extra workouts. London might prefer him at, say, 245 pounds, but the Wahoos’ first-year coach has no problem with Payne’s production.
“When you see him run and you see his ability to hold his pads and run away from people and break tackles, there’s a strength and stamina that he has currently right now that seems to fit for him,” London said.
“As long as he’s handling the weight, he’s not gassed, he’s not tired, he’s still getting productive yards by moving the ball, catching the ball out of the backfield, as long as he can do that and be productive, then we’ll just watch where he is as far as weight.”
Payne starts on UVa’s kickoff-team return team, but he’s in a supporting role on that unit. The deep men are two of his fellow tailbacks, Raynard Horne and Perry Jones. Payne and reserve fullback Terence Fells-Danzer are directly in front of them as lead blockers.
Horne, who like Payne is a fifth-year senior, leads the ACC with an average of 27.5 yards per return.
“Ray Horne is an explosive athlete,” said Mike Faragalli, who coaches Virginia’s running backs. “I think that’s where it starts. He makes his decisions, he’s a one-cut runner, and he’s physical and he’s fast. But he’s getting great, great blocking from Perry Jones and Keith Payne and Fells-Danzer, all the guys.”
Kickoff returns are something “that as a running back group they take a lot of pride in,” Faragalli said. “We’ll sit in our meeting and [watch video of] a kickoff return or two every now and then, just to make sure everybody’s on the same page about what the coverages and what the assignments are.”
UVa (2-4) hosts Eastern Michigan (1-6) in a non-conference game Saturday at 6 p.m. at Scott Stadium. Among the 120 teams that compete in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, EMU ranks 117th in rushing defense (228.3 yards per game).