ATLANTA — Rashan Gary’s unsurprising departure for the NFL means the next person in line must step up.
And for Michigan, that means it’s time for Kwity Paye.
The sophomore from Rhode Island played in all 12 games this season for the seventh-ranked Wolverines, and will get the start at defensive end this Saturday against No. 10 Florida in the Peach Bowl (noon, ESPN).
“It’s a cool feeling — but I also got to know that I’m the guy now, so I have to step up now,” Paye told reporters on Monday. “I can’t be the guy that comes off after. I’ve got to be the guy that starts and makes sure my guys are ready to go.”
Paye says that process began in earnest during spring practice, when Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison pulled him aside on more than one occasion to reinforce the idea.
Chase Winovich would be leaving after 2018 — his eligibility was up — and Gary was likely gone, too, a projected first-round pick in April’s NFL draft. It was time for the 6-foot-4, 241-pound to step up.
“From last year, I didn’t play much and coach (Mattison) would just throw me in there for experience,” said Paye, who played in nine games in 2017, often late when the result had already been decided. “But this year — spring ball, actually — he was like, ‘You can’t be that same guy. You have to step up. You have to contribute. You have to give those guys a blow when they need a blow.’
“I had to step it up in practice and during game time.”
Paye did. Not only did he play in every game this season, but he played meaningful snaps in most of them, too. He made his first career start Oct. 6 against Maryland — the first of three games Gary sat out with a lingering shoulder injury — and totaled three tackles.
Then he started again the following week against Wisconsin, and the game at Michigan State. That’s when he said things started to click. He finished the season with 29 tackles (5 1/2 for a loss) and two sacks.
“I feel like that was, by far, my favorite game I’ve ever had,” Paye said. “The intensity was so high — the rivalry was at stake, so playing in that game — they’re jawing at us, we’re jawing back at them — it was just fun.”
Now, Paye says he’s not the same shy, quiet guy he was a year ago. Earlier this season, defensive coordinator Don Brown praised Paye for his renewed sense of confidence, claiming the backup defensive end had started showing a different focus.
He was talking more, too.
“I had to fit the part with Chase being out there talking, being the crazy man,” Paye said. “(Michael Dwumfour) out there talking. I felt like I couldn’t be that quiet guy anymore. I had to speak up a little.”
Paye hopes to build on what he’s done this season on Saturday in the Peach Bowl, when he and freshman Aidan Hutchinson could see extended reps against Florida. More time to play against quality competition, to get a sense for where he stands headed into 2019.
Gary gave him a confidence boost, too, delivering a message to him on the day he declared for the NFL draft. Paye’s turn is now — and he made sure to let him know.
“I was in the training room after the Ohio State game, I think, and he had came in and he was like, ‘I just declared, bro,’” Paye said. “Then he was like, ‘I’m happy with how far you’ve came this season and I’m extremely proud of you. Just keep going and just keep doing you.’”
Paye plans to add five pounds this offseason — getting him to 270 — and reassess how he’s able to move with in in the spring. If his speed and agility hold up, he’ll stick with it. If not, there’s always the option of losing it.
Either way, a Kwity Paye seems to have emerged. And he’s ready to show it off this Saturday.
“I’m going to bring that intensity,” he said. “I try and match Chase’s intensity. Just make sure I give everything I got.”