I feel like I'm going to be tested, Phillips sighed. You've got to understand. When somebody goes under center, is he going to throw it to the All-American's side or to somebody who's just getting comfortable at his position? You know he's not going to throw it to the All-American's side. So I'm expecting to be picked on.
The All-American is of course senior Alan Zemaitis, who boasts a number of preseason honors as well as a growing reputation among Big Ten offensive coordinators as a player best avoided. Zemaitis is regarded as the cornerstone of a secondary that looks like the program's best in several years, maybe its best ever. One of only four teams in Division I-A football with four senior starters in its defensive backfield, Penn State looks formidable at the safety posts with hard-hitting Chris Harrell back at free safety after missing the 2004 season with a neck injury and steady veteran Calvin Lowry manning the hero spot. The Lions also have an intriguing newcomer in Justin King, a backup cornerback.
And then there's Phillips. The Germantown, Md., native posted big numbers in 2004, snatching four interceptions to tie Lowry and Kelvin Hayden of Illinois for the Big Ten lead, and breaking up a team-high 10 passes. Zemaitis, by contrast, had relatively modest numbers with only two interceptions and six breakups. But those statistics were deceptive, proof that opponents viewed Phillips as the more vulnerable of Penn State's starting cornerbacks. Throwing to his side of the field was a sensible approach, one that Phillips himself could appreciate, and one he expects will continue.
I still haven't proven myself to anyone as a threat, he said. People threw to my side [last season] and got touchdowns. It was a learning experience.
Despite those lapses, the Lions slowed down several high-caliber passing games last year, surrendering only five touchdown passes in 11 games. The only starter to depart in the off-season was Andrew Guman, a free-range linebacker of sorts who delivered fierce hits before suffering a collapsed lung late in the year. And Guman's loss isn't likely to be a devastating blow — not with the tough, experienced Harrell stepping in.
I think Chris Harrell is going to bring things to the table that Guman may not have brought to the table, Lowry said. He can cover, he can do things like that. We're not losing a step like we would if we were bringing in a freshman or a sophomore. Harrell has game experience.
In South Florida, the Lions are opening against a team that will likely try to test their pass defense. The Bulls use a spread formation between the 20-yard lines but favor a more conventional I-formation look in the red zone. They have the personnel to run both schemes effectively. Leading receivers Johnny Peyton and S.J. Green both return, while senior Andre Hall is being touted as the Big East's best tailback.
The Bulls' biggest question is at quarterback, where incumbent Pat Julmiste is competing with Courtney Denson, a transfer from Auburn who will be making his South Florida debut. It's a worrisome combination, particularly with Denson such an enigma. Said Phillips: I don't know anything about the second quarterback, so it's very basic. We're just going to have to line up and play. Go with what you know.
Listed behind Phillips at right cornerback is King. The highly regarded freshman is also a third-team wide receiver behind Derrick Williams and Terrell Golden, and there has been much speculation about where he can best help the team.
From what he's seen of King in practice, Phillips believes it's a no-lose proposition for the Nittany Lions.
You could basically flip a coin, he said. It's either-or. Physically, he's gifted. It's basically, what do you want to teach him? He has a great offensive mind, because he played at Gateway [High] where his dad was offensive coordinator. But he's also good at defense, he has a grasp of that, too.
I think everything is going to work out with him going both ways. I think he's going to have great success on both sides.
Despite the accolades the defense has received in the preseason — and despite the widespread disdain the team's nonconference schedule has inspired — Phillips insists the Nittany Lions aren't looking past South Florida. He said the team can't afford to look past any opponent.
I don't feel like anybody is paying us any attention, he said. So we've got to look forward to playing everybody. The past two years were rough. We don't have the luxury of saying, hey, we're going to breeze by all these teams. It doesn't really matter what anybody says. We have to pay attention to every team we play week after week.
The Ultimate PSU Package for the Ultimate PSU Fan: Under $100!
Enter Code: TTLPSUTIX05