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February 6, 2011

Work Payes off for Hammond's 'thunder' back

They call them thunder and lightning.

Granted, it's not the most original designation for a pair of running backs, but for Hammond's two backfield aces -- one a pure power 'back and the other a track star -- the distinction fits perfectly. Regardless, they both get the job done.


On any given draw, sweep or pitch, Devon Paye and Dionte Jones can carve up a defense like a Thanksgiving turkey. The two combined for almost 3,000 yards on the ground last year.

"You can't stop us both," said Jones aka 'Lightning.' "When defenses close in, I can take it outside, and when teams spread out, Devon takes it up the middle."

Jones (5-feet-9, 165 pounds), who is just a rising junior, is the flashier of the two, a legitimate 4.4 40-yard dash speedster with a first step so quick cameras can't catch him. But while Jones drops jaws - speed sells -- Paye (6-feet, 185 pounds) is more likely to draw a few yawns. The "thunder" 'back is a much more conventional runner, a "true tailback" as Golden Bears coach Dan Makosy likes to say.

That's not to say Paye is a plodder. He bristles at the "thunder" label because it implies he's a step slow and can't do any damage out on the edges. In his defense, Paye immediately points to the three kicks he took back for touchdowns last year.

"I'm a big guy, but I have some speed," Paye said. "I can take it between the tackles and I can slash. I'm sort of like that DeMarco Murray guy from Oklahoma -- a big, strong guy who's also fast."

OK, so Paye probably doesn't have as much glitz as Murray, but the point is clear. There's a reason Paye, a rising senior, is a three-year varsity player who's destined for the upper rungs of college football.

"He's a natural, a perfect running back," Makosy said. "He's got giant thighs, sprinters' calves and a strong upper body; he's powerful, but he can be really shifty.

"He keeps his legs moving, and when he wants to run your ass over, he will flat out let you have it."

Southern High found that out fairly quickly in the first round of the playoffs last year. Paye rumbled and ripped his way to 220 yards and two touchdowns in the 26-21 Golden Bears victory.

One play in particular single-handedly ignited Hammond.

In the first half, Paye took a draw up the middle before bouncing outside. A Southern cornerback zeroed in and went for his ankles, hoping to hold on until help came. As Paye struggled to break loose, Southern's primetime safety, Davonte Burke, fired in and delivered a vicious hit. But Paye shrugged him off like a pesky fly and proceeded to pick up 40 yards before being caught. A few plays later, he scored a touchdown.


"That was amazing. Devon always keeps his legs under him, and when Burke came up to him, he just bounced off and kept going," said Jones, who scored the game-winning touchdown against Southern. "Devon is just a strong running back. His mindset is no body can stop him, and most of the time it's true."

He isn't joking. Despite splitting carries with Jones last year, Paye bulled his way to a team-high 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns. He earned Second Team All-State Small School and all-Howard County honors.

"He might be one of the best 'backs I've ever had in 20 years of coaching," Makosy said. "He really has the tools."

Unlike his coach, Paye is not one for overstatement (the DeMarco Murray comment notwithstanding). A quiet, conservative teen, he stews over his mistakes -- the lanes he missed, the holes he didn't see, the blocks he didn't anticipate. He's constantly tinkering, constantly looking for ways to improve.

"I had a good season, but I was hoping to do even better," Paye said. "I was going for 2,000 yards. I left too many yards out on the field."

First, there was the fumbling problem. Paye coughed up the ball seven times last year, an unacceptable total in his estimation. Then there were the times when he overran his blockers, hitting the hole before his guards could clear a lane. Paye also had a tendency to dance around instead of heading north and south like a true power runner.

But curing a bout of fumblitis and shaky fundamentals was just a matter of a few technical adjustments, which Paye made in the second half of last season (he had just one fumbled after Week 6). But speed-and-strength training take more time.

Paye recently clocked in with a sub-4.6 40, which is pretty good for a 6-foot runner who's carrying over 180 pounds. However, Paye knows it's not fast enough for Division-I college recruiters. And while Paye was strong enough to run over most Howard County defenders, he realizes a 220-pound bench press and a 350 squat isn't going to cut it at the next level.

The cure? Daily weight room work and plenty of track practice.

"He gets it now; he understands what he has to do to become great," Makosy said. "By the time he's done this offseason, we're looking at a sub-4.5 [40 yard dash] guy with tremendous upper-body strength."


That same no-nonsense work ethic carries over to the practice field. Paye isn't one to dumb down his game just because it's a Wednesday afternoon. In fact, the scout team can't stand him; they're tired of taking a beating whenever Paye decides to lower his shoulder like it's the state championship game.

"That tells you something about a kid's desire," Makosy said. "When I was coaching at Damascus, I had a kid named Steve Anderson, who is now the captain of Army's defense. When Steve practiced, he gave 100 percent and he hit like it was the fourth quarter on a Friday night. That's how Devon is."

Ultimately, that passion is what separates those who merely have talent and those who do something with it. Paye undoubtedly belongs in the latter category. Which is why he has his sights set on a state rushing title in 2011.

It's a fairly ambitious objective, to say the least. Especially for a guy who plays thunder to Jones' lightning.

"I might be a little faster, but believe me, Devon is the best running back in Howard County," Jones said. "I have no doubt about that. He has big-time potential."


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