Phillips missed the final nine games of the season after a back injury caused him too much discomfort, growing increasingly more painful with each passing week.
As the staple of the Sooners’ defense, Phillips might be the most important player on the field. Well, he’s back on the field – almost.
Phillips watched the morning session of two-a-days on Tuesday, and he didn’t participate in the Oklahoma Drill. He says he’s 100 percent but is taking the slow road back.
He doesn’t want his chances of playing this season detoured at all.
“I still get work in,” Phillips said. “I’m still over there riding the bike. I still get my cardio in. It’s not like I’m not doing anything. I know it’s for the better. It’s the same situation as last year.”
Phillips said he felt back to full health once summer conditioning started and that he’s worked off the extra 20 pounds he put on in the offseason. While his injury situation is still day-to-day, there hasn’t been a day yet that he hasn’t felt ready to practice.
“It’s just a precaution thing,” Phillips said. “Everybody just wants to make sure I make it through the season. I’m back to 100 percent. It’s good.”
Phillips had 1.5 sacks and seven tackles as a nose guard last year in just four games. While those numbers don’t seem high, for his position, they’re quite remarkable. His impact off the stat sheet is just as important.
“Having Big J there, if you block him single handedly, it’s not going to happen,” middle linebacker Dominique Alexander said. “He’s going to make a tackle for loss. It takes two to get to him.”
Alexander said Phillips’ ability to play in both ‘A’ gaps does incredible things for the defense, and his efforts, along with Chuka Ndulue and Charles Tapper, will be key in allowing the Sooners’ linebackers to roam free.
What’s made a difference for Phillips on the field though is his new, youthful position coach. Jerry Montgomery started with Oklahoma two years ago after graduating from Iowa in 2001, starting for four years.
Phillips said he could connect with Montgomery.
“He’s a lot younger, and he’s a lot more understanding,” Phillips said of Montgomery. “He’s played the position, and he’s not far out of it. He knows what we go through and what really works. It’s what he used to do so it just makes a lot more sense because he actually went through it. It’s actually what’s possible. … It was definitely a little change at first. It’s great.”
That big first collision is still looming for Phillips. He’s had some minor contact but nothing that would test his back to the fullest, yet. That’s Phillips’ final hurdle.
The pain is gone, he just has to forget about his back.
“I have to quit being a little timid and just let it go,” Phillips said.