By Tim Hayes
Bristol Herald Courier
Vernon Payne, a defensive back for the University of Virginia’s College at Wise’s football team, lived by a certain mantra last season as his team struggled.
“You’ve got to keep the mentality that even though you lose, you have to wipe the slate clean and come out again the next day hungrier than ever,” he said.
The persistent Payne hopes to finally satisfy his hunger in 2013.
The rising senior from Chesapeake, Va., intercepted two passes and was the star on Saturday afternoon during UVa-Wise’s annual Red & Gray spring game at Carl Smith Stadium.
For a team that closed out a forgettable 3-8 season back in November, spring practice and Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage were all about improving.
Defense falls in that category.
UVa-Wise allowed 33.7 points and 418.5 yards of total offense per game and nationally-ranked Cumberlands hung 75 points on the Cavs in one late-season contest.
To have a better showing in its initial season as a NCAA Division II program, UVa-Wise’s defense must deliver.
“On defense, we’ve got a good group of guys out there,” Payne said. “I feel like if we all can come together as one unit as a whole defense, then the possibilities are limitless.”
The same could be said for Payne, who has the potential to be a game-changer.
“When Vernon Payne’s head is on right, he’s as good of an athlete as there is around,” said UVa-Wise coach Dewey Lusk. “When I recruited him four years ago at Western Branch [High School] they said he’s one of the best athletes in the [Tidewater] area and they weren’t lying. He’s a good kid.”
Lusk said Payne must make some improvements in his approach.
“He and I have talked about that. If he will focus and concentrate every play, it will be amazing what that child can do,” Lusk said.
Payne was locked in on Saturday, returning one of his picks 52 yards for a touchdown after stepping in front of a pass by starting quarterback Cullen Lavoi.
“I had a feeling,” Payne said. “Sometimes I can feel the route and that was just one of those I felt.”
Former Lebanon High School standout Nick Smith also had a productive afternoon for UVa-Wise, from his “assassin” position in the defensive secondary. He had a pass break-up and a tackle of running back Andre Dickerson that resulted in a five-yard loss.
Smith racked up 36 tackles and emerged as a major contributor last season.
“I got a lot of snaps last year,” Smith said. “I’m still trying to play a leadership role and carry it on the field and off the field and I just hope we can get better each day.”
Offensively, Lavoi threw for 190 yards. The incumbent signal caller showed signs of promise as a true freshman last season.
“He’s getting better,” Lusk said. “Our main thing this year with him is managing the offense.
You don’t have to win the whole game on one play, but let’s manage the offense and get better and he did do that.”
Terrance Younger, with five catches and 65 yards, and Dayne Mullins, with four catches and 76 yards, were the top receivers, while Roanoke, Va., native Zach Cochran rushed for 78 yards.
“I was very, very pleased with what I saw,” Lusk said. “I think we’re a much better football team than we were in the fall and that’s the whole idea, to get better. I think we’re better defensively, we’re better offensively and we’ve got to continue to make strides.”
As for Payne, he hopes to bring the pain when his final season begins in the fall.
“I’ve had plenty of ups and downs here, but that’s all about life though,” Payne said. “I’m getting better as a man and understanding that hard work pays off.”