BIRMINGHAM | The 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS moved up the hill into an empty high school parking lot. Its driver swung open the door and bounded out with a confidence befitting the No. 1 player in the state.
He moved almost effortlessly across a mid-day simmering blacktop, coming to rest in the shade of where he plies his trade on Friday nights. Just outside the Shades Valley High School football stadium he took a seat and it quickly became conspicuous what sets him apart.
The 150-yard inclined walk through July's unrelenting heat and humidity had neither quickened the pulse nor made worse for wear Daron Payne, a 6-foot-2, 339-pound defensive tackle some compare to former University of Alabama All-American and NFL Pro-Bowler Marcell Dareus.
Big, strong and athletic are considerable commodities for high school football players, and Payne has all in abundance, which is why Alabama and Auburn are beating down his door to secure his commitment. It also makes him the state of Alabama's top-ranked player and one of the nation's elite.
"He reminds me of a rhinoceros," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "Obviously, he's a huge kid, but he's built very well. To be 340 pounds and to be as fast as he is, he looks like a charging bull or a rhino."
It's been building to this for Payne, who dreamed of being the best since he was a child. The 10-15 daily recruiting-pitch letters stuffed into his mailbox began in earnest after his performance at the Alabama offensive-defensive line camp last year.
He became a household name in college football recruiting offices and the letters poured in, so much so that he doesn't bother opening them anymore.
"I just put them in a box," Payne said.
His junior season brightened the spotlight with a performance that lifted the entire defense.
"He's dominate," TideSports.com recruiting analyst Andrew Bone said. "He began taking over and it helped not only himself but his teammates too. The ball was snapped and he's in the backfield making plays or chasing the quarterback from the opposite side of the field. Guys like him aren't supposed to move that fast. He's got a great first step, he's fast and strong and has a powerful lower body to drive offensive linemen in to the backfield.
"It all came together to make him the No. 1 player in the state of Alabama for his class."
Ole Miss was the first school to offer, but it's widely considered an Alabama-Auburn race to sign him, although he's considering a Texas visit.
Meeting UA head coach Nick Saban for the first time was a "dream come true," and he's in constant contact with assistant coaches Bo Davis and Mario Cristobal.
"With Alabama it's just the work they've been putting in," Payne said. "I like the mind set they have down there. At Auburn, (I like) just the way it feels. I feel at home at both schools."
A commitment isn't coming any time soon, though. He said he intends to wait until the Under Armour All-American Game in January 2015 to reveal his decision.
For now there's a senior season to occupy his time.
With the ability to play a 3- or 0-technique, Payne is a fit for any defense. In the Crimson Tide's base 3-4 defense, he could move inside at nose guard to chew up double teams or move outside and use his bull rush and rip move to push offensive linemen into the backfield to blow up running plays or chase the quarterback.
"He's got that wide frame," Bone said. "He already looks like he's a junior in college. He's incredibly athletic and really reminds me a lot of Marcell Dareus. They're about the same build.
"How he maintains his weight over the next couple of years will determine what he develops into."
Both knees reveal scars from surgeries resulting from injuries he sustained when he was a freshman. He said he'd like to play at 320 pounds this season.
The reputation of an elite player proceeds him on the field these days. Other players and coaches know who he is.
At the Rivals Camp Series in Hoover and again in Baltimore at the Rivals Five-Star Challenge, players sought to make a name for themselves by beating the No. 2 ranked defensive tackle in the country. Against the best offensive linemen in the country, Payne dominated.
"It's different now because I get double teamed, triple teamed, a lot of that," Payne said. "At the camps everyone wants to call me out. I'm just grateful that somebody wants to go up against me because they think I'm the best."