MOUNT VERNON - Cornell knew that any chance for success against unbeaten Lake Forest (Ill.) would begin and end with stopping the Foresters' star tailback, Joey Valdivia.
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AMES — There was heaviness in D’Andre Payne’s voice as he described what it was like to spend a year away from football.
Nothing about it was easy. Phone calls home to his dad were a pick-me-up, but he knew he had to ride out the hardship.
“My dad helped me out a lot,” Payne said. “When I started talking to Coach (Matt) Campbell and his staff when they were at Toledo, they kind of helped me out through the process. Like I said, I just kept working and waited my turn.”
When Campbell moved on to Iowa State, Payne was sure to follow. The familiarity already was there with the coaches. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound sophomore was familiar with Division I football, too, but now had the maturity he wished he had at 17 years old.
Payne originally enrolled at Tennessee — he had been a consensus four-star recruit — where he played in eight games as a true freshman and recorded four tackles. After just one year with the Vols he transferred to Maryland, near his hometown of Washington, D.C., for family reasons.
After just one semester at Maryland, Payne transferred again, this time to Arizona Western Community College. He wasn’t on the football team in 2015 and preserved his eligibility. Although his other spots at D-I schools were brief, Payne feels he understands some things he felt slipped through the cracks the first time.
“I really didn’t take things serious or as serious as I do now as far as taking care of my body, watching film and just doing the little things to try to be the best,” the 20-year-old Payne said. “So I just think maturity goes a long way with that.”
Iowa State cornerbacks coach D.K. McDonald has known Payne since the latter was a freshman in high school, and originally tried to recruit him to Toledo. Along with the Campbell connection, McDonald was able to usher Payne to Ames when the staff relocated. He has seen a better overall player from what Payne was two years ago.
“When he got to us he had a little rust from being out a year,” McDonald said. “He really knocked that off during the spring and like I said, D’Andre just works his butt off. He’s probably one of the hardest workers on our team in the weight room, in the classroom, in the film room. When you see him play it really shows.”
As a 10-year-old in 2006, Payne won a gold medal at the U.S. Track and Field Junior Olympics in the 200 meters. Campbell plans to use that speed and quickness in the return game as well as on defense.
“D’Andre’s been kind of a flex guy for us,” Campbell said in the spring. “D’Andre’s got such a natural ability. Great cover guy, but he’s got great football instincts. Even playing a little bit of the outside linebacker at times for us in some of our nickel and dime stuff.”
“He’s a great leader,” defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “He has a great personal pride. It’s very important to him. He loves the game. He loves to compete, loves to learn and loves football. When you do that you’ve got a chance to be successful.”
Payne’s year away from football was all part of the path to getting him to where he is now. Those phone calls home are sure to have a different tone than they did last fall.
“Having to sit out last year, it was rough on me,” Payne said. “I couldn’t wait to get back so it just motivates me and I’m just ready for the season to come. I’m just having fun with it.”
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