That Alabama scores “non-offensive touchdowns” – meaning touchdowns scored by the defense and special teams – is not news, and yet it is one of the most newsworthy stories in college football.
Alabama is now 5-0 on the season and ranked first in the nation, and one reason for that success is that the Crimson Tide has benefited from seven non-offensive touchdowns in those five games, at least one in each game. Alabama leads the nation in the category.
In Nick Saban’s coaching career at Bama, which is almost halfway into his 10th year in Tuscaloosa, Tide teams have now scored 53 non-offensive TDs.
If one had to guess which starting Alabama player not on offense would be most unlikely to score a touchdown, there are a few that would be easy guesses. One would be placekicker Adam Griffith. He may lead the team in scoring, but Griffith is not likely to score a touchdown.
And if one didn’t know better, it’s reasonable to suggest “Mr. Unlikely” would be 6-2, 319-pound sophomore nose tackle DaRon Payne. But a key play in Alabama’s 48-43 comeback victory over Ole Miss in Oxford this year was Payne’s fumble recovery and score that brought Bama back from a 24-3 deficit to a 24-24 tie.
That was one of two fumble recoveries that resulted in Alabama touchdowns, and they couldn’t have been less similar, though scored by men of similar size. The last Tide touchdown of that game was scored by Payne’s defensive line teammate, Jonathan Allen (6-3, 291). Allen picked off a ball that was ruled an interception – later changed to a fumble recovery – and took it 75 yards to the end zone.
Payne’s trip was less than 75 inches. Longer than the two inches his teammates chide, but nevertheless a goalline recovery of a fumble caused by Ryan Anderson. It was only the length of Payne’s arm to get it into the end zone.
Payne was a top reserve on the Bama defensive line in the 2015 national championship season, and was named Freshman All-America with 13 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. His first start last year came against Arkanas, this week’s foe for Alabama in Fayetteville.
Payne, who played at Shades Valley High School in suburban Birmingham, wouldn’t take anything for the touchdown he scored, but he pays a price almost every day…from his teammates.
That price is the good-natured joking from the likes of Ryan Anderson.
“He’s always joking and getting on my nerves most of the time,” said Payne. “He’s just joking, but I’m not going to let him live down this touchdown until he gets one. Everytime he talks about me getting off the field (Payne is not a sprinter), I say something about the touchdown.”
Payne admits that his teammates are probably tired of hearing about his touchdown, “But they’re going to have to hear it, though.”
Anderson – who, ironically, caused the fumble that Payne put in the end zone for the TD – calls it “a two-inch touchdown return.”
“He’s just hating,” Payne said. “I joke with Ryan like he can’t talk about me until he gets a touchdown, and he almost had one in the Kentucky game.”
While Payne jokes about his one-up on most of his teammates, he’s serious about the issue of getting turnovers. “That’s a real big part of our defense,” he said. “The coaches preach that every day in practice. Rip the ball out. Strip the ball out. Scoop and score when you see the ball.”
Scoop and score?
“Just get the ball, period,” he said. “You don’t have to scoop and score; just get possession. During practice I usually try to scoop and score.”
Last year Payne had one of his best games in his start against Arkansas. He had three tackles, but his primary job is to clog up the middle, and he was part of a Bama defense that held the Razorbacks to just 44 yards rushing.
As for what he expects Saturday, Payne said, “We don’t really face that many downhill running teams, but Arkansas is going to be our first test. I’m really excited to see what our D-line can do and our defense as a whole.”
Alabama’s streak of scoring non-offensive touchdowns is at seven, going back to the College Football Playoff semifinal game against Michigan State. The Tide has scored 17 non-offensive TDs in its last 16 games, going back to the 2015 game at Georgia.
And as for those non-offensive touchdowns this year, Ronnie Harrison joined Payne and Allen with fumble returns for TDs when Harrison went 55 yards with a pickup last week in Bama’s win over Kentucky. Eddie Jackson had a punt return for a touchdown in the win over Ole Miss, and Xavian Marks had a punt return for a TD against Kent State. Marlon Humphrey returned an interception for a touchdown against Southern Cal, and Jackson had a TD interception return against Western Kentucky.