This article was originally written by Jordan Lee and appeared in the Daily Bruin on December 15, 2014. It has been republished with the author’s permission.
Three hats and a future were laid out before Jordan Payton.
The then-high school senior stood in front of cameras at the 2012 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, behind a table on which three hats were placed, each bearing the logo of the three schools to which Payton had narrowed his selection down.
UCLA. Notre Dame. Cal.
So, which would it be?
“Where I will be going for the next four years is the University of California (Berkeley),” said Payton, telling the interviewer, along with a national television audience that included his family back home in Santa Monica as well as the many schools still recruiting him.
When Payton made the announcement on Jan. 7, 2012, he thought he had put an end to a grueling process that dated back to his sophomore year of high school, when he verbally committed to USC in March of 2010.
In both commitments Payton thought he had found a home. He thought he had found relief from the ongoing tug-of-war between schools for the four-star wide receiver’s allegiance.
He found neither.
“It was like a mix of me trying to put an end to (the recruiting process) and then still getting recruited by so many schools so hard,” Payton said. “It was rough.”
Payton starred at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, totaling 45 touchdowns in a promising prep career that drew the attention of colleges across the nation.
And they had Payton’s.
When Payton decommitted from USC in the summer of 2011 to reevaluate his options, he listed Oklahoma, Michigan and Florida as his top three schools. But none of them were in the mix by the time the U.S. Army All-American Bowl came around.
Neither was Washington, the third school to earn Payton’s commitment. Payton pledged himself to the Huskies on Jan. 31, just over three weeks after stating he’d be spending his next four years in Berkeley.
So, sign, sealed, delivered, right?
Just 24 hours after committing to Washington, Payton changed his mind. Again.
As a recruit’s commitment isn’t binding until they sign a national letter of intent, Payton’s indecision didn’t cost him anything in recruiting – just peace of mind.
While one coaching change may have affected Payton’s switch to Washington – Cal’s top recruiting assistant and defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi left for Washington in January of 2012, and Payton, along with several other Cal recruits switched their commitment afterwards – another certainly settled his ultimate choice.
Jim Mora took over as UCLA football’s head coach on December 10, 2011.
After finishing runner-up to Cal just weeks before, UCLA became Payton’s fourth and final choice as the receiver flipped his commitment to the Bruins less than 24 hours after pledging it to the Huskies.
“(I committed to UCLA because of) the coaches’ and Mora’s belief in everything and just really the vibe you get from being around them,” Payton said of UCLA’s then-newly hired coaching staff. “Everything just blended perfectly: The school was beautiful so it sold itself and just with coach Mora here it just turned things around even more.”
It took Payton nearly three years to decide on a school. It would take him almost just as long to finally shine at it.
Payton’s path to UCLA – while not unprecedented – was altogether one of the more publicized and bizarre recruiting sagas in recent memory. Recruits may commit to a school or two, but not usually one-third of the Pac-12.
His path to the playing field however, is a more familiar tale.
Despite being a highly-touted recruit, Payton played sparingly his freshman year, notching 18 receptions for 202 yards and a score. A year later he was the team’s third option at receiver, forced to sit and watch – and learn – from then-redshirt senior receiver Shaquelle Evans.
“(He taught me) to be there, I think that’s pretty general, but it just means to be there every day, to show up every day,” Payton said. “Be there to prepare, be there to get your body right, be there all the time – that’s definitely something I learned from him.”
It’s a lesson well-heeded by a receiver who spent much of his high school career not knowing for sure where he would be.
In Payton’s junior year, he has been here, there and everywhere for the Bruins. In this, his breakout campaign, he has developed into redshirt junior quarterback Brett Hundley’s most consistent and reliable target.
“He’s been open whenever I’ve thrown him the ball and he catches everything, so he’s just a consistent receiver,” Hundley said. “He’s grown a lot, surely from last year. I mean you could possibly put him up as one of the greatest receivers at UCLA. He has done really well for himself this year.”
Payton certainly has. His 63 receptions for 896 yards are tops on the team in both categories as are his seven receiving touchdowns, which include his game-winner against Texas and his 80-yard score to open the second half against Arizona State – a play Hundley points to as the moment where things began to click between the two.
“I think this year you really started to see a lot of that growth from him and comfort,” Hundley said.
If that sounds surprising – that the player who led one of the more mercurial recruiting tales is now comfortable – it shouldn’t, at least not to anyone at UCLA.
“No, that didn’t surprise me,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone of Payton’s reliability and consistency as a receiver. “JP, that’s my guy. JP’s a ballplayer, he’s kind of our go-to guy. I know Brett (Hundley) has a ton of confidence in him. And this football team has a ton of confidence in JP.”
Now, three years removed from one of the most arduous processes of his life and free from the pressure of recruiting, did Payton make the right choice?
“(This season) validated it for sure. I think the first two years were a big learning experience for me,” Payton said. “Being able to step into my own role, to where now I am like the new Shaq (Evans) – it’s pretty crazy to think about especially with all the stuff I’ve been through and the hard work I’ve put in. It’s kind of surreal but kind of expected at the same point.”