As the Big Ten’s 2020 football season hung in the balance leading up to this fall, senior defensive end Kwity Paye had “a million people” in his ear. Some told him he should hold out hope for a season and remain in Ann Arbor. Others thought opting out and declaring for the NFL Draft would be a better long-term choice.

But in Paye’s eyes, it was never much of a dilemma.

“I came back for a reason,” Paye said on a Zoom call with reporters Thursday. “I didn’t come back just to say, ‘Oh, I was coming back.’ I came back to play a season, so that was the only thing going that was through my head. That’s why I stayed so long, just because I got my hopes up playing this season.

“… I wanted to graduate, I wanted to play a season, and that’s what I did. I’m not really the type of person to take advice from other people. As my mom would say, I’m real stubborn and once I have my heart set on something, I like to see it through. I came here for four years and I’m happy with that.”

With the Big Ten football season set to begin in a little more than two weeks, Paye’s career has come into focus. Three years ago, he arrived in Ann Arbor as the third-lowest-ranked prospect in the Wolverines’ heralded 2017 recruiting class — a group that ranked No. 5 nationally, according to 247Sports.

Last October, Paye recalled a moment during his recruitment when a Michigan fan called him a “three-star bum” on social media. The comment stuck with him. By flipping his commitment from Boston College to Michigan, Paye got his first taste of what it’s like to drown out the noise.

“I still remember when I decommitted from Boston College,” Paye said. “When I committed to (Michigan), people were like, ‘Oh no, you’re not going to play. You’re making a big mistake. Don’t do it.’ All these years later, all it took was hard work and consistency and I am where I am.”

Now a senior, Paye has emerged as a crucial piece of the Wolverines’ defense. He recorded a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss last season — including 6.5 sacks — and added three quarterback hurries. When the team’s back was against the wall against Army, Paye recovered the game-winning fumble in double-overtime.

After a junior season of wreaking havoc in the run game, Paye used the offseason to zero in on improving elsewhere.

“I didn’t show enough of (my pass-rush moves) last year,” Paye said. “That’s because I didn’t feel like I focused on it a lot last year, but this offseason I really focused on my go-to move and then my counter and then just really working on my pass rush. Last year, I would say I was really more of a run defender but now this year I’ve kind of worked the pass rush into there as well.”

With Michigan’s top pass-rusher from last season, Josh Uche, now in the NFL, Paye and junior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson will be asked to pressure the quarterback even more. If Paye answers the call, it’ll further cement his projection as a top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. CBS Sports’ latest mock draft featured Paye at No. 10 overall on Wednesday, while other outlets have floated his name as a potential first-round selection.

So far, Paye checks all the boxes — he’s put plenty of highlights on tape and his reputation and physical abilities precede him. He topped The Athletic’s list of “freaks” across college football in July, and his 6.37 three-cone drill time, sub-4.6 40-yard dash time and 34-inch vertical make it easy to see why. 

That leaves only one thing left to accomplish.

“I have no rings,” Paye said. “I came to the University to be a champion, and I’m yet to be a champion. I’m trying to accomplish that one thing because I feel like I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. … This is my last year. I’m giving it all I got. This team is giving it all we’ve got.

“Just trying to get that ring.” 

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