RANTOUL, Ill. - Illinois junior Carroll Phillips surely doesn't lack confidence. Despite making a small impact during his first injury-shortened season (six tackles and one sack in seven games) at the Big Ten level, the junior college transfer is gunning for an Illini legend.
“My goal this season is to beat Simeon Rice’s (sack) record," said Phillips, a junior pass rusher.
Rice, a longtime NFL star, holds both the career sacks record (44.5) and single-season sacks record (16 - tied with Whitney Mercilus).
"I’m really striving to get that," Phillips said. "When (Rice) came and talked to us, he really touched my heart. He really wanted us to break the record, so I think I’m going to be the one to do that. I’m up for the challenge. I love challenges so I’m up for it and I’m ready to take over.”
While Illinois isn't counting on a historic season from Phillips, the staff is searching for a big contribution from the 6-foot-3, 240 pound junior -- even more so now that strongside defensive end Jihad Ward will miss at least the first two games of the season with an injury. Incumbent starting LEO (a hybrid, pass-rushing linebacker/defensie end) Dawuane Smoot has shifted to strongside defensive end to fill in for Ward, catapulting Phillips into the starting LEO role.
“I’m a starter right now until Jihad comes back," Phillips said. "I’m just taking the opportunity and taking advantage of it.”
Phillips' opportunity was short-lived last season. He suffered a neck injury in the third game against Washington but didn't tell the team medical staff about it until four games later when the pain became unbearable.
"I used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming because of the agonizing pain in my neck," Phillips said.
The diagnosis: a disc was pushing against Phillips' spine. He had surgery to fuse the disc, ending his first BCS season. Phillips was held out most of spring practice as he recovered.
Phillips feels and looks healthy now. He has one of the team's best bursts off the line of scrimmage and has the speed to chase tight ends and even some receivers into coverage. He's versatile enough to put an arm on the ground and rush the passer while also playing linebacker in nickel and dime situations. But the Illini won't play many spread, passing teams in the Big Ten, so Phillips must improve at setting an edge and stopping the run.
“Carroll’s gotten a little bigger weight wise," outside linebackers coach Al Seamonson said. "He’s gotten closer to holding it at 240. At 6-3, he can run. He’s got transition speed. At times, you got to slow him down. He tries to rush some things. He’s not letting his speed work for him sometimes. When he gets that mastered, he’s going to be a good football player too.”