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‘He’s the MVP’ — during the national title game, 6 head coaches were going wild over Da’Ron Payne

In his final college game, Alabama’s best defender was the talk of the coaches’ broadcast.

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

During Alabama’s win over Georgia in the title game, you probably watched the main feed. But ESPN also presents the game on other networks, including a feed in which six head coaches (Duke’s David Cutcliffe, former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, Colorado State’s Mike Bobo, Ole Miss’ Matt Luke, and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy) had a roundtable in real time. It’s an informative way to watch football, and you’ll learn a lot if you find it being replayed on a random offseason night.

During the telecast, one name kept coming up when the Tide were on defense: Da’Ron Payne.

Here’s every snap Payne played in the title game.

Payne recorded three solo tackles and six total tackles. He didn’t have a sack, tackle for loss, or QB hurry on the conventional stat sheet. With some advanced stats, you can see how he affected the game a little bit better.

Beyond even advanced numbers, there are plenty of unquantifiable ways for a DL to wreck an offense. The coaches kept talking about how Payne gets the job done.

Payne started early.

He caused a pick with interior pressure on the third play of the game. Georgia QB Jake Fromm couldn’t step into the throw and put too much air under the ball. Here’s Payne’s short-area quickness on full display.

The coaches noted Alabama was in a bear front, a look it showed often in the game. The front creates five one-on-one matchups along the line and challenges each defender to simply whip his man. On this play, the Tide ran a stunt on the left side and brought an extra defender.

But Payne beat center Lamont Gailliard by himself.

Because of the way Bama moved Payne around, he had mano-y-manos with each guard as well.

Multiple coaches highlighted the “key matchup between the left guard and Payne” in the early going. Thanks to Payne’s alignment on the play below, this became a one-on-one when the center slid. Fitzgerald said that while he understood the protection being called the way it was, he’d like “two sets of eyes” on Payne.

Payne got in the backfield and forced Fromm to get rid of the ball here a little bit quicker than he’d probably have liked to. If Fromm had the time, he could have taken an extra second to hit DeAndre Swift on a checkdown in the flat. He didn’t have the opportunity to work through to that progression. Luckily, he had an open option.

Instead of putting two blockers on Payne, on this play, the Dawgs continued the bold strategy of asking Galliard to make a block, which made it look like nobody was blocking Bama’s most destructive lineman.

“I don’t like centers blocking back on three-techniques,” Cutcliffe said.

Having a center move around a pulling guard and block back on a normal three-technique defensive tackle is one thing. Having them do so on a guy with Payne’s skillset is a borderline unfair ask.

Here’s how Payne can do it all in one play.

He lined up in what Sumlin identified as a “tilt alignment,” on one play. The alignment’s invention is credited to Steelers legend Mean Joe Greene, who improvised it it because he was tired of getting blocked.

He hated to get blocked and wanted to make plays. So it occurred to him that, because he was so quick, he should just line up inside, between the center and the guard, tip his shoulder sideways, and when the ball was snapped, he’d just dart through that hole. He was supposed to line head-up on the guard. He jumped in the gap between the guard and center, tilted his body, and just blew through that gap.

Whereas Greene tried to dart through the hole, Payne tried to dart through Galliard:

He took him on, defeated him, and made the tackle all in one fell swoop.

“Like I said, he’s a problem,” Sumlin said.

Payne’s ability to defeat one-on-one matchups showed up again as the Dawgs get into the red zone.

Thanks to this linebacker alignment, Galliard had less time to get out to block them and can’t help out his left guard, Kendall Baker, with Payne.

Baker needed the help.

On UGA’s next drive, Galliard was able to give Baker some help, and it didn’t still didn’t matter.

“Just give him the trophy,” Fitzgerald said after this play. “He’s the MVP.”

Mind you, this was second quarter of the game.

“It’s bringing back haunting memories of calling plays in [the SEC] when I was in it,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s people on the field you just can’t block.”

Perhaps Payne’s biggest impact is evidenced in the fourth quarter, and pointed out by Bobo.

A Bama defensive lineman got a sack, and immediately multiple coaches asked if it was Payne. They’re just assuming at this point that any big play in the backfield is him.

It was actually No. 99 Raekwon Davis, but Payne’s presence created the sack.

There were basically three UGA linemen trying to block Payne on this play, and that’s a problem.

Georgia’s offensive line was in slide protection, which means it was supposed to slide one direction (the right, in this case) while running back Nick Chubb goes out on the backside to cover up any defenders coming from that direction. But the center did not slide, instead sticking around to help his guard with Payne. The right guard — likely assuming he’d have some help on his left — got beaten to that side by Davis, and Fromm got sacked.

“You know what the center’s doing right there, Matt? Who’s to the left? 94,” Bobo asked rhetorically. “That’s what he’s doing. [The center’s saying] ‘I know we’re in a full slide right, but my left guard said I need some help.’”

Payne’s a force, and stepped up in a big way in a big game.

Now he’s coming to an NFL roster near you. To his opponents on the next level: good luck. Payne will be a high pick, but if any of these six coaches had been making the decision in January, he probably would’ve been taken first.