During a conversation earlier this week at the Bastrop High fieldhouse, it was said that Bastrop wide receiver Jamari Payne is the best-kept secret in the state. When asked if he agreed with the statement, Payne simply nodded his head.
While playing alongside three-year starter Jay Wilson and missing four games with a broken leg may have limited Payne's time in the spotlight, the 5-9, 175-pound senior-to-be is hardly a secret around Bastrop.
Payne flashed his playmaking skills in his first varsity start two years ago, snaring a 99-yard touchdown pass against Greenville-Weston. Averaging 18.7 yards per catch, he finished his sophomore season with 30 grabs for 562 yards and four touchdowns.
Last year, Payne caught 29 passes for 476 yards and six scores in eight games. Payne's best receiving game isn't reflected in his 2012 stats. He amassed seven catches for 143 yards, including an 84-yard TD reception, in a 21-20 Bayou Jamb loss to Ouachita.
Payne's big-play prowess isn't limited to catching passes. In fact, he may be even more dangerous returning punts. Highlighted by a memorable 78-yard touchdown against West Monroe, Payne averaged a staggering 27.6 yards on nine punt returns last season.
The soft-spoken Payne lets his play on the field do the talking.
“Jamari works his tail off,” Bastrop coach Thomas Bachman said. “He never hardly says a word and he lets us coach him pretty hard. He loves the game and you can see it in his work ethic. He wants to be a better football player.
“He's very respectful. His parents have done a great job with him.”
Unfortunately for Payne and the Rams, his junior season was cut short by a fractured fibula, which kept him on the sidelines for the final four games. For Payne, whose leg was placed in a boot, the injury was more painful mentally than physically.
“I was still part of the team, but I wasn't playing with the team,” Payne recalled. “I still went to the games and I wanted to be out there, trying to help my teammates, but there was nothing I could do. It was especially frustrating in the playoffs. That was my first time to experience sitting out with an injury, and hopefully the last time.”
Payne returned in time for track season, reaching the Regional in the four events (the 100-meter dash, 200m, 4 x 100m relay and 4 x 200m relay), but the real test came last week during spring training.
“Once I took the first hit on my leg and didn't feel any pain, I knew everything was all right,” Payne said. “It feels good to be back playing.”
Page 2 of 2 - Now that Wilson, a Central Arkansas signee, has graduated, Payne is unquestionably the team's go-to receiver. It's a role he embraces.
“I have to step up with Jay gone,” Payne said, “but it's a challenge I'm looking forward to.”
As a senior in a young receiving corps, it's up to Payne to provide the veteran presence. He is excited to see the progress of his younger peers.
“Our young receivers are really starting to learn,” Payne said. “It's fun to see Josh Doaty, Isiah Graham, Travion Burks and Kajuan Madison getting better every day in practice.”
Payne's skill set hasn't escaped the attention of college recruiters. Though he doesn't have any offers yet, he has attracted interest from Southern Mississippi and Louisiana-Lafayette among others.
“A lot of people have talked to me,” Payne said. “I guess they're waiting to make sure my leg has healed and to see how my senior year goes.”
As he steps into the lead receiver role, Payne is certain to have the opportunity to put together a big senior year.