Like any football team, Texas Tech has several players whose performance will be particularly critical to the squad's success. These players, whether by virtue experience, leadership, importance of the position played, depth concerns, or sheer talent, are especially crucial. They may or not be the best players on the club, but they would be very conspicuous were they to be absent for any reason. In fact, that may be the best way to conceive of the critical players—they are the performers the team could least afford to lose.
With this series, we will take a reverse order look at the Red Raider football players we consider most invaluable.
5' 10" 185
Columbia, South Carolina
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of Texas Tech's 2013 spring camp was the emergence of three active playmakers at the linebacker position. Micah Awe, Kris Williams, and Chris Payne all came, more or less, from out of nowhere to bolster a position that has historically been a sore spot for the Red Raiders. If this trio can translate their practice play to live games, they will join the experienced core to help make linebacker a real team strength.
Payne's play in the spring was a true surprise. A somewhat highly regarded junior college transfer in 2012, Payne made a scant impression in his first season on the High Plains. He may well have been in the proverbial coach's doghouse, but for whatever reason, Payne simply didn't produce and saw few reps in which to do so.
In the 2013 spring scrimmages, however, Payne looked like a linebacker reborn. Playing on the outside, Payne was a real pest and a genuine obstacle to the offense's bubble screen game. Payne, as befitting a high school safety, played very well in space. He fended off blockers surprisingly well, and was quite a sure tackler in the open field.
At only five-foot-ten and 185 pounds, Payne is grievously undersized for a Big 12 linebacker, even in a 3-4 scheme. For that reason, he will likely be a situational player, and probably will not start many games (Will Smith and Pete Robertson are the prime candidates to start at outside linebacker). Payne also was not used a great deal on blitzes in the spring, so pass rushing presumably will not be a key part of his role. But in a conference where the passing attack is almost everything, and pocket-breaking quarterbacks are common, Payne will fill a key niche.
Look for him to play key snaps against Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kansas State and TCU in particular. Payne will be an important defensive cog against those teams that like the short passing game, the screen game, and whose quarterbacks are fast and like to get to the outside.