On arguably the most important day of his football career so far, nerves never afflicted Fred Payne.
The former Gainesville High standout couldn’t let them, not with NFL scouts scrutinizing his every move during his Pro Day last Monday at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. After playing at Western Carolina, an FCS school with little national exposure, Payne knew his performance would greatly influence teams’ interest in him.
No pressure, right?
“I was laid back and loose,” Payne said. “You don’t want to overwhelm or pressure yourself. No doubts, either. Doubts hold you back more than anything else will. You’ve got to have a strong mentality and positive mindset.”
The confidence Payne cultivated as a Red Elephant carried him through Pro Day and has the defensive back convinced he’ll land on an NFL roster.
He won’t have to wait much longer to find out, with the NFL draft set for April 27-29. Teams usually sign free agents soon after the event’s conclusion, and Payne is confident he’ll be in that bunch if his name isn’t called during the late stages of the draft.
A strong showing at pro day improved his chances. Payne said he thought he performed well for the 22 NFL scouts and others from the CFL and Arena League in attendance, though he hasn’t yet received results from his Western Carolina coach, who had to return to the team for spring practice.
“I did great in position drills,” he said. “I had fluid hips, was pretty smooth running the drills and I caught a lot of passes. I think I impressed coaches and showed them what they were looking for.”
The Gainesville native even met with scouts from the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers, drawing up schemes and assignments as a sort of mental drill.
But Payne said he’s attracting attention from other coaches, who are most interested in his versatility. At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, he’s capable of playing cornerback, safety or even in the slot as a nickelback, all of which he did at Western Carolina.
“I can cover or play in the box,” Payne said. “(Scouts) like my ability, my smarts and how I’m able to fit in multiple schemes.”
He’s not above playing special teams, either.
“I sold myself and said they should play me where needed,” Payne said. “I told them I’ll do anything to help the team. Just put me in the best position possible. Special teams, anything. I want to be a team player and do it all. I don’t want to come off the field.”
Coming off the field would be a departure for Payne, who was a full-time starter for seven of the last eight years.
That trend began at Gainesville, where he recorded 360 tackles and 14 interceptions over a stellar four-year career. The Red Elephants won the Class AAAAA state championship during his senior season in 2012, which Payne said adequately prepared him for college football.
He played for the Catamounts right away, appearing in all 12 games and making one start as a freshman despite dealing with injuries. The highlight of that season for Payne was his interception of Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson, which happened on the first play he entered the game.
“I’m sure Auburn was like, ‘We see this young guy coming in, so let’s take a shot at him,’ ” Payne said. “Once I made that interception, my confidence went through the roof. I knew this is where I belonged.”
Payne played against five SEC schools while at Western Carolina, providing him with valuable film to show scouts how he stacked up against NFL-caliber talent.
“I told myself that if I see myself going to the NFL, I have to play big in big games,” he said. “ … People will see that on the film. They’ll see me performing against the best of the best. I showed I could play with a big-name school.”
The Gainesville High graduate finished his college career with 241 tackles, 11½ for loss, four interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. He was the Catamounts’ leading tackler last season before graduating early in December with a finance degree.
“I’ve loved being out of school so far because I can just focus on football,” Payne said. “That’s a big reason why I was so relaxed when I came to pro day.”
He spends that free time commuting from Gainesville to Atlanta to train with Chip Smith, who has worked with numerous professional athletes. There, Payne works alongside other NFL hopefuls and established veterans like three-time Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall and A.J. Bouye, who recently signed a lucrative deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Gainesville High serves as his training facility on weekends. Payne hopes his regimen will soon include private workouts for NFL teams, which he said his agent is currently arranging.
Those meetings would also affect his chances of carving out a spot on an NFL roster, but the Gainesville native is too busy enjoying himself to be nervous about that.
“I had a chance to play Division I football, which was my dream,” Payne said. “And now to have a chance to enter the NFL, it’s a blessing already. I’m forever grateful for it.”