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It’s one thing to have an offer from national power Georgia as an eighth grader at McBride Middle School, like Damon Payne did before stepping on campus at Belleville High School.

But it’s another to back those lofty expectation by putting in the hard work on the field and in the weight room the way Payne has since. Payne is now ranked the No. 1 defensive tackle in the country by the 247Sports Composite heading into his senior year.

Payne, a rare five-star player, will be announcing his college decision on July 26 with most of the recruiting analysts picking him to go to Alabama.

Payne – ranked No. 2 by The Detroit News among the Top 50 players from the 2021 class – announced the July 26 date on twitter Friday. He had previously announced that his final 10 included Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, LSU, Oregon, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona State, USC and Alabama.

Payne took a trip down south with several of his teammates, including Devontae Dobbs, as a 15-year-old during his freshman year and came away with an offer from Alabama coach Nick Saban.

“I was on a spring break trip that Coach (Jermain Crowell) takes us on every year and we went to Alabama,” Payne said back in 2018. “I was with my coaches and they were having a conversation and Coach Saban started talking to me and in the middle of our conversation he offered me, and I was just shocked. He said to keep working hard, keep developing into a better player.”

More: Clarkston star Rocco Spindler says no to IMG Academy, sets commitment date

Obviously, Saban’s words had a big impact on Payne. Michigan has also been recruiting Payne steadily since his freshman year at Belleville.

Payne has always been big, playing at 6-foot-3 and 278 pounds his freshman year, then continuing to get stronger, playing at 6-4 and 310 pounds this past fall.

Now Payne is leaner, getting down to 290 and showing his quickness during conditioning this summer.

“He’s gotten stronger,” Crowell told The Detroit News. “Played at 310 last year. This year he’s down to 290, so he’s faster, leaner and I think it’s going to help him be more explosive. He’s the top defensive tackle in the country. He’s big, fast and strong. He’s hard to stop.

“I think last year with him trying to get bigger, it was experimental on his end, but now he understands, especially going both ways and not coming off the field, that leaner is better.”

Payne took a visit to Michigan in early February, then told The News after watching his teammates sign national letter of intents on Feb. 5: “I like Michigan. I really like it up there. I’m building a relationship with Coach Nua (defensive line coach Shaun Nua), and I want to get up there more.”

Obviously, Payne didn’t get the chance to make more trips due to COVID-19, deciding not to take his official visits this fall.

Payne earned a spot on The Detroit News Dream Team this past fall after getting in on 59 tackles, including 22 tackles for lost yardage, and eight sacks. He did not allow a sack as an offensive lineman.

While Payne will make his decision next weekend, his teammate, four-star linebacker Jamari Buddin – ranked No. 7 and also a Detroit News Dream Team member – will be announcing his decision on Friday.

Buddin, who had 61 tackles, including 29 tackles for lost yardage and 18 quarterback hurries, has the majority of the recruiting analysts saying he will be headed to Penn State. Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota are also high on his list.

“He’s put on almost 20 pounds; he’s now a 6-3, 225-pound linebacker,” said Crowell of Buddin. “He’s gotten way bigger and way stronger.”

Detroit native and Penn State defensive coordinator Tim Banks has been able to get some of the top 2021 players from the state and especially Metro Detroit, including the King twins, Kalen (No. 9, cornerback) and Kobe (No. 14, linebacker) of Detroit Cass Tech, and Jaylen Reed (No. 10, safety) from Detroit King.

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