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Growing Payne: Former small school safety learning Jaguars' defense at middle linebacker

Donald Payne's latest NFL adventure has him relaying plays to his teammates as the Jaguars' starting middle linebacker during the first seven organized team activities workouts.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Donald Payne's first year in the NFL has been a whirlwind of sorts. The former small-school safety has played for two different teams, been converted to linebacker and become a special teams maven all in a matter of 12 months.

Payne's latest adventure has him relaying play calls to his teammates as the Jaguars' starting middle linebacker during organized team activities workouts. With Myles Jack participating in a limited capacity during OTAs, Payne has been asked to man the middle of Todd Wash's defense.

"Working with the [first team] is definitely a blessing being out there, so I'm just trying to maximize every opportunity that I get," Payne said to First Coast News on Monday. "I've been getting a lot of reps out there, so I'm just trying to improve every day ... just show the coaches I can learn."

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Payne has already shown he can adapt to most of the challenges thrown his way during his short, but unique NFL career.

The 23-year-old went undrafted last offseason and signed with the Baltimore Ravens, who moved him from the secondary to the middle of the defense. He spent his entire rookie offseason learning the linebacker position.

Payne then took what he learned during training camp and made enough plays during the preseason to stick out to the Jaguars' scouts.

When Baltimore waived Payne following the preseason, Jacksonville acted quickly and claimed the then-rookie. Added to the mix prior to the Week 1 clash against the Houston Texans, Payne had little time to study the defense. He made his mark on special teams, leading that unit with 13 tackles during the regular season.

Due to Payne's lack of regular-season study time, he only played three snaps on defense during his rookie year. The former Stetson safety was forced to wait until this offseason to catch up on his playbook.

"This is a new defense, I didn't get to learn it fully last year because I came in when the season started and I was primarily [on] special teams," Payne said.

"Not only did I have to transition from college to the pros like everybody else, I [also] had to transition from safety to linebacker. It was kind of a big jump, so I'm just trying to learn the defense and get everything together, knowing which fronts we are [using] and stuff like that. Little things that as a safety, you wouldn't know in college."

Payne has spent the last three weeks setting up the defense as the middle linebacker. That responsibility has helped him learn the roles of everyone else around him.

"It makes you learn better because as a [middle linebacker], I have to know everybody's position on the field, know what everybody is doing," Payne said. "It makes it easier for me, knowing [what other players] are doing, so helps me know what my job is. At the same time, it's a lot of responsibility at MIKE."

Payne has embraced the responsibilities that come with being a middle linebacker. His handling of this new opportunity has impressed his boss.

Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone has been pleased with the way Payne has performed during the first half of OTAs.

"I think with Myles on the side, [Payne] has gotten in there, and he has done a nice job," Marrone said Monday.

"You can see he has picked up the communication. He has picked up the system well. Now, it is just a matter of when we go to training camp, can he get out there and actually make the plays? You simulate as a coach during this time of year … You see a player out there and you are like, ‘Oh, he made that play. Can he make that play when it counts or when it is live?’ I think that Donald has done a good job of putting himself in that position."

Jack recently rejoined the linebacker group for individual drills. The former second-round pick will eventually take his rightful place as the Jaguars' starting middle linebacker. However, if Payne can impress his coaches in the meantime, he could find himself more involved on defense this season.

"I think he has done a good job [so far]," Marrone said.

"The thing that is probably the most impressive is that sometimes when guys have this opportunity, you see another level of their game go down. For Donald’s case, special teams. You will see him putting a lot of time into playing linebacker and the special teams going down – we have not seen that. That is a good sign in a player. He has been able to keep both of those things going at a pretty high level.”

During Monday's workout, Payne continued to show off his potential on defense.

Covering tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins across the middle of the field, Payne jumped in front of the receiver and nearly picked off a pass from starting quarterback Blake Bortles. Payne was unable to make a play on the ball but he still broke up the pass.

With three OTA workouts, mandatory minicamp, training camp and the preseason still to come, Payne should have plenty more opportunities to prove himself as a playmaker on defense moving forward.

Follow Mike Kaye on Twitter at @Mike_E_Kaye.

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