Daron Payne gets it: playing at Alabama isn't the easiest thing in the world.
First, it's not as if Alabama opens its doors for every prospect that aspires to be a college football player. Being a perennial national championship contender tends to create a high standard. And then, if you're lucky enough to receive a scholarship, you need to have the patience to wait your turn behind a list of players who are projected to be NFL draft picks.
That was the case with Phidarian Mathis, the Washington Commanders' second-round pick, as he had to wait until his senior year to be a starter. Payne, who played with Mathis during his redshirt season in 2017, has watched from afar as Mathis worked to climb up the depth chart, and he couldn't be prouder of how far the rookie has come.
"I think he did exactly what he was supposed to do with his opportunity," Payne said on a Twitter Spaces segment hosted by the NFL ahead of the draft.
Mathis wasn't lacking for talent in his first three seasons with the Crimson Tide. He was the fourth-ranked defensive tackle and the No. 37 overall prospect at the high school level by ESPN. What's more, he played well when he got the snaps; he improved his tackle production every season, and in 2020 he recorded 31 tackles, three pass breakups, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
The only issue was that he played part of a dominant defensive front that included Quinnen Williams (taken third overall in 2019) and Raekwon Davis (a second-round pick in 2020). Still, Payne appreciated how Mathis didn't let that hamper his work ethic.
"He stayed the course, kept chopping the wood, kept coming to work every day," Payne said. "And he finally got his time to shine."
Mathis was a team captain in his final season at Alabama and put together a career performance in 2021 with 53 tackles, two pass breakups and nine sacks.
"I knew what time it was," Mathis said after being drafted. "I knew it was time for me to step up. I finally had my chance to be a starter. I finally had my chance not to sit behind so many guys. There were so many guys that came through I had to sit behind. I had to wait my turn. So, it was finally my turn and I think I stepped up when it was time to step up and when they needed it the most."
It will be something of a reunion when Mathis, Allen and Payne are finally on the field again, but it's hardly the first time they've been in contact over the years. He considers Payne and Jonathan Allen, although he was drafted after Mathis joined the team, his "big bros."
It'll be a blessing, he said, to be able to play with them at the NFL level.
"I can't wait to get around those guys and just learn from them and also just come in and help them out."
Mathis will be playing behind Payne and Allen in the interior defensive line, but he's still expected to be a key contributor. Ron Rivera likes the unselfish attitude he brings to the position as well as his ability as a pass-rusher.
With Washington in need of interior depth now that Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle are playing for different teams, those are traits that will be of use on defense.
"One thing he did very well was he held the point of attack," Rivera said. "He absorbed the double teams, allowed the linebackers to run. He allowed them to run and be productive."
And Mathis is all in for doing whatever he can to help the defensive line succeed.
"I'm just going to take whatever comes to me and I'm going to go in, just do my job," Mathis said. "Whatever coach asks me, I'm doing it. So whatever my role is, that's what I'm coming to do. And I'm going to put my best foot forward no matter what."