It seemed like a story gone bad. One of the most touted linemen on the Husker squad, sporting some of the most hype in some time for someone who hasn't even taken a snap, the expectations on Phillips were high, but hope was even higher.
That hope seemed to find itself dashed amidst rumors that Phillips citing personal issues was leaving the team, hence NU losing possibly one of it's biggest weapons at tackle, figuratively and literally. That talk has since been quelled by coach Solich and more importantly, Phillips himself. "I'm doing fine." Phillips stated. "I never actually left the team."
"I was just going through some personal stuff, getting my life back together as a person and now I am focused on being a better player."
Being a better player is what is considered to be a lofty goal as coming out of high school, Phillips was considered amongst the best, ranking as a national All-American. With those kinds of credentials, Phillips' adjustment to this level didn't so much have to do with the level of play, but the playbook itself. It didn't take Jemayel long to figure out that his credentials, size and strength weren't going to have the immediate impact it had prior to being at this level. "I was thinking that for a day or two until the first time I looked at the playbook." Phillips stated in regards to his thinking he was going to play right away. "Then, I realized it was going to take a whole lot for me to play."
For Phillips, the redshirt year was a foregone conclusion as he was indeed going to take that time to better his familiarity with the playbook, but also his game overall. It's not experience that Jemayel looks back upon fondly, but definitely necessary. "It was humbling." Jemayel said. Humbling for someone of Jemayel's size would be considered almost impossible, but having to face probable first-round pick, Chris Kelsay every single day, Phillips said that he learned as he went, but initially, his success as almost non-existent. "For the most part at the beginning of the year, I was getting my ass kicked."
Phillips did improve though and along with the improvements behind his physical and mental preparedness, his confidence grew as well. "Going against Chris Kelsay helped me a lot, taught me a lot and I feel like I am ready to take on anybody."
With the rumors behind him, the issues of Phillips' weight still loom as conversation. At 6'6" and 370 lbs., Phillips isn't a daunting figure, he's gigantic. To look at that differently though, when Toniu Fonoti played for NU, as a junior, he weighed in at a stout 340 lbs., while standing 6'4", so proportionately, Phillips' weight isn't completely out of the realm of reasonable. And, if you ask Phillips, right now, he feels pretty good. "The way I feel right now, I feel like I can play." Phillips stated. "But, I will play at whatever the coaches want me to play. If I have to lose weight, I will lose weight."
The focus behind Phillips is as much as it is, because the expectations on him are so high. With Richie Incognito's move to center, Phillips is considered the odds-on favorite to take that spot at left tackle. "I want to start, of course." Jemayel said. "I want to be out there on the field as long as the offense is, but as of right now, everyone is just learning new stuff." As for him being ready though, Jemayel responded simply, "definitely.".
The "new stuff" Jemayel points to is the system being integrated by new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Barney Cotton. Much has been made of this as people look to see the Huskers bringing a vastly different offense to the field come this next season than in any season prior, perhaps in the last 20 to 30 years. And, it's simpler to boot. It's simplicity would appear to level the field for younger offensive linemen like Phillips."Somewhat." Phillips stated in regards to this offense seeming simpler than last year's. "Whenever you learn something new with football, it's going to be hard either way." Phillips stated. "We're just going through the motions, everybody is picking it up day by day and when it's time to play, we'll be ready."
Being ready is what fans are hoping this year as the opinion of last year's line was that they were anything but. Lackluster performances that didn't indicate to anyone that this was your "typical" Nebraska line, changes were expected this season, but nobody was certain where they would take place. Cotton's presence brings optimism if only because it's something different, but Phillips indicated that don't look just for the plays to change so much, but the way the line plays game-to-game. "We are trying to pick everything up." JeMayel said. "Forget about everything that the offensive line was about last year. This is going to be something new."
"Everything is going to be "A-game", whatever we do. Pass-blocking, run-blocking, on down to field goals. Everything is going to be stepped up to another level."
Aside from what Phillips stated was going to be stepped up, what he didn't remark on, at least initially was another aspect of what was considered to be "wrong" with the team as a whole, but especially on the offensive line, the lack of leadership. That lack of leadership, Phillps stated won't be an issue this year. "Everyone is going to be a leader, on down the line."
"We all learn new stuff, but everyone is going to have to be a leader."
Where JeMayel is now compared to where he was, it seems like a lifetime ago. Granted, he's been with the program just a short time, but he's already gone through the gamut it would seem, emotionally and physically.
As Phillips looks to compete for the starting job and do his best to re-ignite the excitement behind the "Pipeline", he doesn't regard anything that had happened during his redshirt year, no matter how negative as something he would change. "It was a hard thing to go through, but it was a good thing." Jemayel said.
"If I had to go back in time, I would go through it all again."
Well, the hope is that he or anyone else on the team doesn't have to endure the negative again, but certainly hopes are bent on the positive. Phillips is just one part of the "new-look" Huskers, but at 6-6 and 370 lbs., nobody will argue that at least physically, he'll be one of the biggest presences NU has ever had.
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-730-5619