By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Jake Payne doesn't need to be reminded about Shenandoah University's defensive numbers from a season ago. They're ingrained in the defensive lineman's brain.
The Hornets ranked last in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in scoring defense in 2013, as they allowed 33.5 points per game. They were last in the conference in total defense (443.3 yards allowed per game), rushing defense (231.3 yards/game) and turnovers forced (12).
Somehow Shenandoah managed to win four games -- a three-game improvement on SU's win total from 2012 -- but that has done little to ease Payne's frustration with the Hornets' defensive performance last fall.
"I can't even sleep at night because I think about it," Payne said following practice earlier this month.
Payne may take those stats a little more personally than others around him, but that's what sets him apart from most of his teammates. That passion is what makes him click.
"Football is really important to him," Hornets head coach/defensive coordinator Scott Yoder said. "Honestly he's one of the kids that -- you've got to walk the fine line in saying this -- but he almost takes the bad too hard."
Yoder said he has challenged Payne this season to rein in his emotions a little bit, mainly for the simple fact that the 6-foot-5, 265-pound junior has been voted as one of the Hornets' four team captains and will be relied upon to help guide his younger teammates through adversity.
But don't expect that to dampen Payne's fiery passion on the football field this fall -- he's got too many lofty goals for the Hornets' defense this season to allow that to happen. And it starts with Payne and his teammates along the defensive line.
"We want to be the best D-line in the ODAC, if not the top in the country," Payne said. "I think we have the potential to be. I know we do. We worked our [butts] off this offseason and I think that's going to show this year."
Payne took personal strides to ensure that this year's version of Shenandoah's defense is better than its predecessor. Knowing that he was going to be moving back to defensive end after playing mostly at defensive tackle last season, Payne shed 20 pounds this offseason and focused on getting faster.
"I was down in Florida training for a month and a half with a speed trainer, so I was just running all the time trying to get my speed up," said Payne, who added that he is "significantly stronger" than he was last season. "Me and [Hornets defensive end] Ian [Griffin] both ran the conditioning test [in the spring] with the wide receivers and we both passed it with the wide receiver times. ... We did that because we know that's what it's going to take. My goal is to have my motor going 100 percent every play."
If Payne does indeed improve on a personal level from his 2013 season, that will be great news for Shenandoah. Last year as a sophomore, Payne started all 10 games and finished third on the team with 62 tackles (26 solo). He also was third on the team with three sacks and had a total of 5.5 tackles for loss, and was named a second team all-ODAC selection.
"He played last year and started every game for us as a sophomore and he did more than hold his own," Yoder said. "I think the game that really solidified it for me was against Hampden-Sydney. He was going up against their All-American tackle, [Will] Ferrell, and Jake had some nice moves against him and really held his own. He's a huge part of what we're doing, and the fact that he can play inside or out -- he's a difference maker. Right now we don't have enough difference makers, so those guys are really important to us. The big thing for him, for our program, is the leadership aspect."
Payne and Griffin, who have built a strong friendship since Payne's freshman year in 2012, will bookend a defensive line this fall tasked with leading a unit that will be inexperienced in the secondary.
Yoder said the success of Shenandoah's defense this season will depend heavily on how well Payne and Griffin (51 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, 10 TFL in 2013) perform, and Payne said the defensive line's ability to generate a pass rush against opposing quarterbacks will be critical to helping SU's defensive backs.
"Those guys are our leaders, and up front they're going to take us as far as we're going to go," Yoder said. "They've got a great connection. We've got to lean on that."
Just how much improvement that leadership will generate remains to be seen, but Payne is determined not to let Shenandoah repeat 2013.
"It's not going to be the same," Payne said. "I can promise you that."
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD