Keon Paye recently had the game of his career, according to Towson head football coach Rob Ambrose. The Tigers turned in a lopsided 42-3 victory against North Carolina Central in their 2019 home opener Sept 7. It’s hard to take away much from such a huge mismatch, but in one play, the redshirt senior linebacker produced what could be the best highlight of his college tenure.
Late in the second quarter, Paye and the Tigers’ defense were already pitching a shutout. Paye already had three pass breakups and a big third-down stop earlier in the game. As if the Towson defense couldn’t dish out anymore punishment, Paye added insult to injury by picking off quarterback Davius Richard deep in NC Central territory.
And as his head coach saw the athletic strongside linebacker jump the route, he knew what was about to happen.
“On his pick, the guys upstairs on the headphones [were] going, ‘Offense, get ready,'” Ambrose said, describing his coaching staff’s preparation for the drive following the interception. “But I was like, ‘Nope, he’s gonna score.'”
And score he did. Paye returned the interception 38 yards for a touchdown. It was Towson’s first pick-six since 2015.
“I just read the QB’s eyes,” Paye said. “Just kept eyeing him down and then jumped [the route]. And took it to the crib.”
Paye has been a dynamic athlete for as long as he’s been a football player. The 6-foot, 225-pound linebacker came to Towson University in 2015 as a 185-pound wide receiver and safety out of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md. A consensus three-star recruit, Paye was tabbed a second-team All-Metro selection by The Washington Post after catching 64 passes for 893 yards as a senior in 2014. He earned first-team All-Washington Catholic Athletic Conference honors as well.
“He was a kid that when we got him, we knew could play both sides of the ball,” Ambrose said. “So whether it was at receiver or safety, we knew we were going to want him.”
But something funny happened once the Columbia, Md., native reached Towson.
“He just kept growing,” Ambrose said.
After redshirting in 2015, Paye earned playing time at safety the following season. He finished with 50 tackles and two interceptions in eight starts. He even showed off his multidimensional tools, scoring his first college touchdown on an 81-yard kick return in a 34-24 home win against William & Mary.
“I like to joke that’s he’s the only SAM linebacker to return a kick for a touchdown in all of the NCAA,” Ambrose said.
After an impressive debut season, something funny happened to the Tigers’ new starting safety once again.
“He made the transition to safety,” Ambrose said, “and in time, he just kept growing and growing and growing.”
The 185-pound recruit who grew into a 198-pound safety eventually became a 225-pound linebacker. In 2017, he ranked fifth on the team with 52 tackles and posted five tackles for loss, robbing opposing teams of 32 yards.
In 2018, Paye improved with 74 tackles in 12 starts as a strong-side linebacker, including 10 tackles on the road at Wake Forest.
“His aggressiveness, his speed, his strength, all played a role in his development as a linebacker,” Ambrose said.
Paye’s gains in the weight room are not the only impressive part of his transformation, according to Ambrose. The responsibility Paye has shouldered during his journey from a highly-touted recruit at receiver to playing what Ambrose considers a very difficult spot on the defensive side of the ball has been impressive as well.
“It’s not an easy position to play,” Ambrose said. “At that SAM linebacker spot, you are on the strong side. You are at the point of attack on the ball. You need someone there you can count on.”
Photo Credit: ENP Photography
Issue 257: September 2019