It doesn’t matter if the number is actually 21 or it’s just what Jeremiah Payton estimates now.
Twenty-one is the number which lives on in the Payton household like it’s some sort of urban legend.
Twenty-one — the number of touchdowns Payton ran for in eight games in his first season of organized football.
Payton can immediately call up the number, and so can his mother and father. It didn’t take anyone long to know Payton maybe had a future in the sport.
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In this first season, Payton was a 6-year-old quarterback trying to mold his game after Cam Newton — he still calls the quarterback his favorite player — and it always looked to Shayla Payton like her son was running for dear life.
Payton, actually, had made scoring touchdowns a friendly competition with his running back. As he remembers it, Payton finished with 21 touchdowns. The running back finished with 20.
“We was like going back and forth with it,” Payton said. “I just kept getting better.”
Payton never really diverted from this trajectory. At 13, Payton was a national champion. At 14, he had colleges reaching out to him before he even played a varsity game.
On Wednesday, Payton will take his next step. Now a four-star wide receiver in 247Sports.com composite rankings, Payton will sign his National Letter of Intent with the Miami Hurricanes. Next month, he’ll suit up for the Under Armour All-America Game, then enroll at Miami.
Payton will almost certainly be the top-ranked public signee for the Hurricanes on Wednesday and because he’s an early enrollee he’s perfectly positioned to be one of the their most productive freshmen next fall.
He’s been on track for this since before he even began playing organized football.
Payton grew up glued to the television when college football games were on. He mainlined Newton highlights and videos of Chris Johnson from when the running back played for the Central Florida Knights. He told everyone he couldn’t wait to play in college. He even managed to needle his father by out-scheming him in the annual “Madden NFL” video games.
“I couldn’t beat him,” James Payton said. “He was studying in it. I was actually just playing, but he was actually really trying to study. He knew the plays, he knew the routes to run, stuff like that.”
Between Payton’s fascination with the game and the 21 touchdowns he scored as a 6-year-old, everyone figured Payton was destined for something. By the time he reached high school, Payton had already made a name for himself in the Jacksonville metropolitan area.
The fall before Payton began high school, he was a running back for the Oakleaf Knights and helped bring home a United Youth Football League national championship.
“Everybody knew who Jeremiah Payton was,” Fletcher coach Kevin Brown said. “What do you call that? An urban legend? He was an urban legend.”
A year later, Brown got to see the legend firsthand. Payton played junior varsity his freshman fall, then spent the spring working with the varsity. College coaches who stopped by in Neptune Beach started to take notice.
The Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles were the first to make an offer to Payton before the end of the spring, but Miami, Payton said, was the big-name program to finally get things rolling. Special teams coordinator Todd Hartley, who recruits the First Coast for the Hurricanes, watched Payton and told him he was impressed.
“He was just telling me the potential I had,” Payton said. “When he was telling me that I just kind of sat myself down and was like just noticing I have the potential that college coaches like.”
By the end of his sophomore year, Payton was no longer just a local legend. The North Carolina Tar Heels, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Florida Gators, Georgia Bulldogs, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Miami all offered by the end of 2016. They had all seen his full-extension diving touchdown catch against Lake City Columbia and the devastating crackback block he leveled against Ponte Vedra.
Really, it didn’t even take an official game, though. Fletcher made the short trip to Jacksonville White for its preseason classic where Payton made a play Brown still can’t help but talk about. The receiver ran a tunnel screen and the quarterback’s throw was headed way over his head. Payton managed to reach up and pull the ball in with one hand. He didn’t just save a doomed play — Payton turned upfield, weaved through the White defense and dashed 30 yards for a touchdown.
No two Payton highlights look the same, and even now it’s hard to pin down one skill at which Payton most excels. At The Opening Miami regional in February, Payton only measured in at 6-foot-1 and 186 pounds, but he’s a viable jump-threat. He only ran a 4.74-second 40-yard dash at the camp, but he has no trouble getting separation.
“He’s that guy that every coach looks for that’s all in one,” said Koreen Burch, Payton’s 7-on-7 coach at Burch Sports Performance. “He’s not your very fast guy, but he knows how to create separation. He knows how to get open. He knows how to use his big body.”
This fall, Payton made a full-time return to wide receiver after splitting time between wideout and quarterback as a junior. He guided the Senators to the postseason with 52 catches for 638 yards and five touchdowns, plus 13 carries for 231 yards and another two punt-return touchdowns. He even chipped in on defense occasionally, finishing the year with 42 tackles and two interception despite playing safety for the first time.
Since he committed to the Hurricanes, Payton hasn’t seriously considered any other schools, which wound up being a major coup for Miami. Ahmmon Richards, who began 2018 as the Hurricanes’ No. 1 wide receiver, suffered a career ending injury after catching just one pass this fall. Jeff Thomas, who began the year as Miami’s No. 2 wide receiver, was dismissed from the program last month. The Hurricanes’ top-ranked commit will arrive on campus at just the right time.
Miami’s offense has major questions. Almost everyone in the Jacksonville area will say Payton can be one of the answers.
“He’s always,” Brown said, “been a part of something big.”