Phillips Leads Pitt Veterans

With more than half its two-deep lineup comprised of players in their first or second seasons of eligibility, the Pitt football team certainly should be among the youngest in the Big East Conference this year.

But that doesn't mean the University of Pittsburgh lacks in senior leadership. With fifth-year players like offensive linemen Mike McGlynn and Chris Vangas, defensive ends Chris McKillop and Joe Clermond, cornerback Kennard Cox and safety Mike Phillips, the Panthers' upperclassmen are well-represented on both sides of the line.

"We have a lot of talented young guys on this team and some good ones coming in this fall,'' Phillips said. "But don't forget about us veterans. Me, K.C. (Cox) and Thatch (Eric Thatcher) in the secondary.

"Guys on both lines, too. Derek Kinder working with the young receivers. We have plenty of leadership all around. Don't worry about that. A lot of young guys will need to contribute, but we'll make sure they'll know what it takes.''

Phillips is among the most experienced Pitt players on defense this season with 15 previous starts, including seven as a redshirt freshman. He was to be a full-time starter the following season, but injuries cut that campaign short after three games and hampered last season as well.

Phillips is expected to be paired at safety with Thatcher this fall to give the Panthers their hardest-hitting secondary duo in years. And after a rigorous offseason conditioning program, he should have any more injury problems.

"I've gone through a lot of hard work with Buddy, and I'm ready to go for camp,'' Phillips said. "I think I can be a leader on this team and an inspiration for my work on the field, but also off it through my work ethic. I've worked very hard to overcome the serious injury I had a couple years ago.

"So, I'm all the way back now. And I'm ready to contribute to the team in every area. When I first broke my ankle, I tried to motivate from the sideline, but that wasn't the same thing. And I wasn't 100 percent until now, and I think I can really help the team in leadership and on the field.''

Cox believed that Phillips should be an inspiration to his younger teammates for what he had to overcome just to get into his fifth season at Pitt.

"We're all working real hard to get ready for the season,'' Cox said, "and Mike is a perfect example to the younger guys. He shows them every day on and off the field with his play and his work ethic. I know I appreciate what he's done so far, and we're looking forward to a big season from Mike.''

With solid cover skills and hitting ability displayed by its secondary this year, Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads should be able to use his safeties a little closer to the line to help the run defense. But don't expect Phillips to let out any team secrets just yet.

"We can't give away everything, but there's some things happening that should make us better on defense this year,'' Phillips said. "First, it's the players. We have a lot more players this year, so we're a lot deeper on defense. We have more experience and are a lot healthier.

"From the coaches to the players, we felt like last season was not how it should be here at Pitt. And we know we're a lot better than a 6-6 team. It's not just me saying that. On defense, we all need to make more plays, and we have the players who are able to contribute in every area.''

The Panthers flashed some of that talent during the spring, but it won't be on full display until summer training camp in August.

"I do think we answered a lot of questions in the spring,'' Phillips said. "We lost our linebackers and some good guys in the secondary, but we're going to be stronger up front and have a lot of talented guys in the mix at linebacker.

"In the secondary, it's not like we're inexperienced. We have three guys with a lot of games here and Aaron Berry, who is as good an athlete as we have here at Pitt, so you'll see a big different on defense this season.''

And it's veterans like Phillips who should lead the way.

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