Kwity Paye recognized the trickery right away. He wasn’t fooled.
Southern Methodist’s offensive line stood still, hoping to confuse the Michigan defensive line so the Mustangs could get a quick play off.
Paye was undeterred, turning the corner with his elite speed on full display as the quarterback rolled to the other side. He approached the quarterback, and in practice — where his reps largely take place these days — that’s where the play would have stopped.
“Can’t touch the quarterback in practice,” Paye said through a laugh Tuesday. “No, sir.”
But this was a game, and Paye was giving no mercy.
“I saw that he was trying to get a quick play off,” he said. “So I just sprinted over there and then I saw he still had the ball and just took my shot.”
Take his shot, he did, sending the quarterback’s helmet flying and putting fans on notice for things to come.
The sophomore defensive end is stuck in limbo right now, groomed as a successor at one of the defensive end spots. For now, he sits behind stalwarts Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, operating at both the “end” side and the “anchor.” Each has its requisite skillsets. For now, Paye is walking that tightrope.
“The anchor side is more of a hard-nosed position,” Paye said. “That’s like the base of the defense. So if the anchor is weak, the whole defense falls apart. You have to be strong at the position, knock the tight end back, just be physical. At the end position, I feel like that’s more the pass-rushing side — able to finesse and chase after that quarterback.”
In high school, he played the “end” spot, where he was known best for his athleticism and pass-rush ability. Paye has since added about 25 pounds, which allows him to spell Gary at anchor as well.
Defensive line coach Greg Mattison’s system is predicated on plenty of rotation, often dictated by the players themselves. But with All-American-level players operating each end, there’s hardly room for anyone else to take on an extended role.
Paye would be next in that pecking order — he will be next in that pecking order, be it this year or next. It’s hardly a knock on him that his playing time is limited by Winovich and Gary.
In fact, he’s using their presence to pick up morsels from their games.
From Gary, Paye is hoping to absorb resilience.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him miss practice,” Paye said. “Even when he’s injured, he’s out there practicing. That just motivates me to fight through injury and go out there.”
From Winovich, it’s his relentlessness.
“When you see Chase play, there will be a quarterback that will take off down the other sideline, you see Chase hunting him down,” he said. “Just seeing him play with that much enthusiasm, that much effort, makes me want to play that same way.”
Paye has been working with Tenarius “Tank” Wright — a former defensive end at Arkansas, who is on Michigan’s strength staff right now — to help develop pass-rush tools and proper usage of his hands.
At the moment, it’s about finding balance as he juggles what’s needed now and what will be needed in the future. He has to be ready to play this year, in the event of an injury or any other circumstance. For next year, he needs to be as best prepared to step in (likely for Winovich at “end” side) and produce. There will be boatloads of production to replace.
Paye admits it’s been hard, that next year will be easier for him. He’s taking reps at both sides, sometimes to the detriment of the long-term outlook.
“I think (Mattison) knows those guys are getting ready to leave,” Paye said of his outlook on the future. “So I feel like he’s trying to prepare me to try and eventually take over, eventually fill those spots. But as of right now, I’m just trying to contribute.”
Often, that’s on display more in practice than in the games.
But rest assured, when Paye gets his look — just as he did against SMU — he’ll be ready.