Expectations were high for the Illinois defensive line entering the 2016 season. The unit was projected to be the strength of the team led by second year defensive line coach Mike Phair.
However, most football analysts, writers and NFL Scouts did not expect defensive end Carroll Phillips through 10 games to lead the Big Ten in sacks (8.0) and TFLs (17), both career highs.
Phillips originally committed to the Fighting Illini as an outside linebacker with some duties as a situational pass rusher. His 2014 season was cut short due to a neck injury, and he made the permanent switch to right defensive end in 2015, recording three starts toward the end of the season. Phillips has started 9 of 10 games so far this season and now is getting more comfortable as a full-time starter with his ability to defend both the run and pass.
Sacks and interceptions are the two defensive statistics that stand out to most because these are momentum shifting plays. But in order to rush the quarterback, the defense must stop the run first and accumulate tackles for loss. Phillips is gradually improving at this.
For example, North Carolina came out in a passing formation with 10/Spread personnel (1RB-0TE-4WR) with "Trips" alignment to the wide side of the field.
The Tar heels wanted to take advantage of QB Mitch Trubisky's athleticism on a design sweep with right guard R.J. Prince kicking out the end man on the line of scrimmage. UNC was in position to create another gap by running the ball to the weak side of the formation into the boundary while using running back T.J. Logan as the lead blocker. Phillips displayed good upfield burst at the snap of the ball, blowing past Prince and securing the tackle on Trubisky behind the line of scrimmage.
Phillips also shows a devastatingly quick first step in pass-rush situations. It's hard for defenders to sack quarterbackss on short three-step drops if the ball is delivered in rhythm. In this play, Phillips'' explosive reaction off the ball put pressure on left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor. The low pad level and body lean enabled Phillips to avoid Okorafor's punch while maintaining balance to accelerate through Western Michigan QB Zach Terrell for the sack.
Defending the Read Option for any DE/OLB is a tough assignment. The QB reads the end men on the line of scrimmage, and depending on the reaction of the edge defender, the quarterback has the option to hand it to the running back or keep the ball. Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr. is one of the Big Ten's dynamic quarterbacks that can hurt you with his ability to run executing the zone read. The Cornhuskers wanted to run the ball into the boundary out of 11/Diamond Personnel. (1RB-1TE-3WR) Phillips showed good mental processing with his ability to diagnose the run fake from Armstrong to RB Terrell Newby. He used lateral agility and square shoulders to redirect upfield without losing outside leverage. Phillips' athletic ability mirrored Armstrong, causing him to hesitate and stopped for a loss.
Coach Phair likes to add movement to the rush by stunting or slanting the D-Line. Phillips' combination of quick first step and change of direction upfield adds to his ability to penetrate and finish sacks when he is left unblocked. For instance, Minnesota wanted to take advantage of Phillips' aggressiveness, anticipating that he would crash down the LOS with the run fake. The Gophers called a play-action boot pass for QB Mitch Leidner to hit H-Back Colton Beebe in the flat. Phillips processed the run fake, closed on Leidner before he could turn around and secured the tackle even though he lost leverage momentarily.
Also, Phillips can win with his ability to defend the run executing line stunts. Michigan State LT Davis Beedle broke the line with a tackle trap to his right. Phillips slanted left and showed the awareness to work his way into the backfield to tackle RB L.J. Scott for a loss.
With Iowa coming to Champaign this weekend, the Hawkeyes will present some challenges for the Illini run defense The Hawkeyes are committed to the run and will test Phillips by running the ball directly at him to slow down his pass rush.
If Phillips continues to be disruptive and make plays behind the LOS, he will continue to garner attention from NFL teams with his ability to defend the run and rush the passer. The question for most teams will be whether he is a 3-4 OLB like former Illini star and current OLB for the Houston Texans Whitney Mercilus, or is he just a situational pass rusher that can only align to the right side of the field in a three-point stance.
Regardless, Phillips' breakout season has put him squarely on NFL radars.
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com.