HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Over the course of his football career, George Payne had accumulated his fair share of bumps and bangs and bruises.
But Payne never had gone through anything like the attendant agony and frustration associated with his first, major injury.
Payne was coming off a productive 2014 season for The University of Southern Mississippi, rushing for 271 yards and a team-high six touchdowns, when his right knee betrayed him during a practice session in April 2015.
Payne tore the anterior cruciate ligament, costing him a 2015 season that saw the Golden Eagles finish 9-5 and claim a Conference USA West Division championship.
"It was awful and kind of depressing, too, because you can't really do anything," Payne said earlier this summer. "I was kind of stuck in my room. Like three weeks after surgery, I couldn't walk, couldn't do too much of anything. I couldn't drive my car because it was my right knee, so I was pretty much stuck at my house all day. It was a setback, a major setback. I felt like I had a chance to really come in last year and play a major role, but you just have to stay positive and move forward."
The 6-foot, 215-pound Payne has done just that.
He reclaimed a spot in the Golden Eagles' running back rotation this summer and is expected to be the first option off the running back bench when USM opens the season at the University of Kentucky.
Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky.
Ito Smith, who was one of two, 1,000-yard rushers for the Golden Eagles in 2015, will get starting nod as the Golden Eagles' primary threat out of the backfield.
Last season as a sophomore, Smith rushed for a team-high 1,128 yards and 10 touchdowns, and caught 49 passes for 515 yards and three more scores.
But with the departure of USM's other 1,000-yard rusher, Jalen Richard, to the National Football League, one of the Golden Eagles' primary goals during the offseason was to identify Richard's heirs and Smith's running mates.
Payne was limited this spring, while another contributor from 2014, Tez Parks, missed the spring after going through knee surgery of his own. Those conditions opened the door for redshirt freshman Patrick Brooks to step up and make an impression.
But Brooks aggravated a chronic hip issue toward the end of spring, a problem that required season-sidelining surgery.
That left Payne and Parks as the top candidates to beef up the backfield, and the former quickly caught his coaches' attention.
"George had a good camp," USM coach Jay Hopson said of Payne."Ito's our starter, but those other guys, especially George, got a lot of playing in this summer, so that's good."
Parks, a 6-1, 210-pound sophomore, tore his ACL and meniscus in left knee during a summer practice prior to the 2015 season.
Just 6 and a half months out from surgery, Parks has worked through this summer in a leg brace.
"Physically, I feel good," Parks said. "It feels fine. Doesn't ache, doesn't hurt, doesn't nothing, so I feel like it's around 95 percent to 100 percent."
But Parks admitted this summer that he still was trying to convince himself that his reconstructed joint was ready for action.
"It's still part mental," Parks said. "I should be ready the week of Kentucky because I will have had time to work my way up with all the cutting and getting it hit. I've gotten tangled up and it's been nicked up some, but I need to really take a hit on it to see how it's going to feel."
Payne has taken advantage of his opportunity, trimming down some seven or eight pounds from the spring and showing good bursts to go with his trademark burly runs between the tackles.
"We've got three, pretty good backs," USM running backs coach Lytrel Pollard said. "Everybody knows about Ito and what he brings to the table, and George and Tez, though they're both coming off knee injuries, I've been very pleased. George has been ahead, physically, because his surgery was sooner that what Tez's was, and (Payne) went through the spring."
Payne, who had a second surgery eight months after the first to remove a screw that had been inserted in his knee, said he was just grateful to be back with his teammates.
"It was tough," Payne said. "I felt like I wasn't part of the team. I couldn't travel, really couldn't do much of anything except (rehabilitate), so I'm really glad to be back. I feel like I'm part of the team again."
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