Raw-boned lineman has potential

The hard realities of NCAA academic requirements mean that not all the best athletes end up at their preferred school. Wenonah High School's Eric Phillip may have as much raw talent as any lineman in the state.

Listed at 6-5, 250 pounds, Phillips is at least that tall and may not be finished growing. His high school coach, Ronald Cheatam, talked about the big man. "Eric is one of those kids that may eat a bag of potato chips for lunch. He can end up a 300-pounder and probably won't even change his pants size. He's a skinny, 6-7."

Wenonah's recent game against Hillcrest of Tuscaloosa illustrates the problem facing high school sports in the state. From a more affluent neighborhood with greater support, Hillcrest flooded its sideline with prospective players. Despite its size, Wenonah has trouble filling out its roster.

Playing both was isn't unusual in high school, but Eric Phillips hardly steps off the field. "I played most of the game," Phillips told BamaMag.com. "Offense, defense, everywhere. Left tackle on offense, right end on defense and kickoff coverage. My coaches just need me. We don't have that many people on the team, so they need me."

If he was in better shape academically, Phillips' name would be more prominent on the recruiting trail.

Coach Cheatam commented, "Eric didn't play as well (against Hillcrest) as I've seen him play, but people have to understand. Eric is 6-7, 260-265 pounds and you see him running down covering kickoffs, because we need his help.

"You take a kid like that, two-way football is all he knows. He thinks it's normal. Playing him so much is not something the coaches want to do, but to compete at a 6A level against teams as good as Hillcrest, you've got to play your best players. We've got to play Eric all the time just to match up with them and slow them up."

It's impossible to play nonstop without it affecting your play to some degree, but Phillips was a force on both sides of the football. Matched up against the Patriot's excellent left tackle, Cody Davis, Phillips essentially neutralized the Bama recruit.

On defense he's very quick off the ball. Phillips was in the Hillcrest backfield a lot, forcing them to run away from his side of the line. Handling the left tackle spot for his own offense, Phillips won most of the battles. Once he gets his hands locked on the would-be rusher, the contest is finished.

For an athlete his size Phillips has good footwork. He stays in front of his man, and also does a good job maintaining leverage. Not surprising given his height, he's more effective pass blocking than in the rushing game. But that's mainly a matter of adding bulk and learning proper technique.

Against Hillcrest he did a good job picking up the blitz. On defense, he often gets by his man with a quick first step.

Right now Phillips is the personification of "raw," but his upside is excellent. "He's going to be a good football player once he's able to concentrate on just one side of the ball," Coach Cheatam said. "Unfortunately with us playing (shorthanded), you've got to play a kid like Eric on the kickoff team and everywhere else. We play him at offensive tackle; we play him at defensive end. He can't get the rest during games that he needs in order to be performing like he should."

Cheatam is convinced that Phillips will excel in college. "As he gets to play on just one side of the football and focus on just one area--when he can focus all his efforts and his energies on just one position--he's going to be something. He's going to be an outstanding player for somebody."

Phillips is hearing from numerous schools in and around the state. "I haven't thought about recruiting that much yet, not really," he said. "I'm concentrating on the season more than where I want to go right now.

"All the Alabama schools, Alabama, Auburn, UAB and Troy State are talking to me. Arkansas, Ole Miss, Clemson, South Carolina--I'm hearing from all those schools."

What has he heard from the Tide coaches?

"Coach Harbison is recruiting me for Alabama," Phillips replied. "I think they may be recruiting me more for offense right now, but I don't know for sure."

His high school coach thinks Phillips could end up at any of several positions in college. "I'm not sure of his best position," Cheatam said. "He's in a situation that whichever school chooses him, if they need him on offense, he can be there. If they need him on defense, he can be there. It depends on the needs of the program."

Eric Phillips currently weighs in the 255-260 range, but he could easily add significantly more bulk.

"Actually, playing both sides of the ball helps him in recruiting," Cheatam continued. "A coach can know that if defense doesn't work out, then he can put (Eric) on offense, or vice versa. That helps him."

Phillips would prefer to stay in state, but a chance to get an education while continuing to play football is what's most important. "I'd like to go to a Division 1 school," he said.

RECRUITING NOTES: In a normal year Phillips would be an automatic sign by the Tide. His physical potential is clearly there, and he's a perfectly smart young man. Phillips just hasn't had the same advantages growing up that many prep athletes take for granted.

But this is not a normal year for Alabama. NCAA sanctions mean that the Tide must be extremely picky in assembling its 2004 class. Bama can't afford a "miss" academically or otherwise.

The Tide coaches are watching Phillips closely. At this point his performance in the classroom is probably even more important that what he does on the football field.

Read all of the recent recruiting stories on Alabama recruits from TheInsiders.com.

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