Breakout candidate: DE Carroll Phillips

A neck injury nearly ended Carroll Phillips career. Two seasons later, he looks like he'll be a pain in the neck for opposing offensive lines.

Carroll Phillips wanted a legendarily thick neck. The kind like former WCW wrestler Bill Goldberg or actor Tom Hardy in the film "Warrior."

The Illinois senior defensive end had a different trapezius muse.

"Takeo Spikes," Phillips said. "I think he's got a big neck. I was hoping for that, but my neck didn't get that big. But it got a bit bigger."

But Phillips' goal wasn't primarily for vanity. 

Phillips entered Illinois as a raw, long, fast and athletic athlete but really didn't have a position, shuttling between defensive end and linebacker during his first fall camp. His talentt though allowed him to see the field immediately.

But he suffered a neck injury during the third game of the 2014 season against Washington. However, he didn't tell the UI medical staff about the injury until four games later when the pain became unbearable.

The culprit: a disc was pushing against Phillips' spine. He had surgery to fuse the disk, which ended his season. Some thought the injury would end his career.

So Phillips' goal was to build that neck stronger, better. He had the technology.

"We got a machine down there (in the weight room) that works on just your neck," Phillips said. "I was hoping for me having just a muscled neck. 

"I told myself, 'When I get back on the football field, I won't be scared to hit anybody.' With a neck injury, a lot of people would be scared to hit somebody. But not me. That's all I like to do is hit somebody. That whole recovery process, I knew I just had to get better and get stronger."

He has, though it took some time.

Phillips missed spring practice in 2015 as he continued to recover from the neck surgery. He entered fall camp last year more bulked up yet with the same burst and athleticism that allowed him to sometimes rep at linebacker as a sophomore.

As a junior, Phillips grew from a pass-rush specialist to a more complete defensive end. He broke out with 2.0 sacks against Wisconsin, a performance that earned him his first career start (at Purdue) -- the first of three straight November starts.

Phillips didn't register anymore sacks during the 2015 season but finished the season with 5.5 tackles for loss and made other difference-making plays off the edge. He carried that momentum into the spring, where the Illini's experienced, quality offensive tackles struggled to keep Phillips at bay."Week in and week out, I try to train hard for this position because there are other guys behind me who are trying to take my position," Phillips said. "Like (Gimel) President, he wants to take my spot and be a starter. Sean (Adesanya) wants to be a starter as well. But I come out here on and off the field, go into the film room and try to see how I'm moving on the field during practice. I hit the bags a lot. I work on my get-off. I hit the sled a lot. Basically, I try to maintain my get-off and speed and my hands and quickness and everything like that."

Phillips continues to build on his rise during fall training camp. Teammate Dawuane Smoot is the more well-known name at defensive end and better NFL prospect. But the attention paid to Smoot should only enhance Phillips' potent pass-rush ability, which has gained more of a power aspect recently.

"You can see he's put some weight on," Illini defensive line coach Mike Phair said. "He's one of those guys who could run all day. You look at him, and he has no fat on him at all. He's just got like zero percent body fat on him. He can run. He's got juice off the edge. He's what you look for in that edge rusher."

Two years ago, some thought Phillips playing career may be over due to a severe pain in his neck.

He's now a Big Ten starter -- and depending how that role goes, maybe an NFL prospect? -- and a likely pain in the neck for opposing offensive lines.

"It means a lot to me to be a big part of the defense because now coach Lovie Smith is here," Phillips said. "My neck injury, coming back from that, that was a career-ending injury, so it means a lot to me. My family can come out here and watch me play. I can show off for the coaches, the strength staff for building my neck up to wear it needs to be. My neck is stronger than before."


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