Signing a four-star defensive end from Nashville worked so well for Tennessee coach Butch Jones last year that he decided to try it again this year.
The original Music City mauler was Derek Barnett of Brentwood Academy. All the 6-foot-3, 267-pounder did in Year 1 at Tennessee was set an SEC record for sacks by a freshman (10) en route to Freshman All-America recognition.
Hoping history will repeat, Jones recently dipped into Nashville for another four-star lineman, Kyle Phillips of Hillsboro High. Rated the No. 7 defensive end in the Class of 2015 by Scout, the 6-foot-4, 250-pouner may have the skills to make the kind of splash in Year 1 that Barnett did in his rookie season.
“That excites me a lot – with Derek being from Nashville and making a really big impact his first year – seeing how I can do it, too,” Phillips said. “He could do it; why can’t I do it? I feel like if I come in here, work hard, listen to the older guys, take advice from everybody and do well in the classroom, I can be just as good as he was this past year.”
That will be a tall order, even with Phillips enrolling at mid-term and participating in spring practice. Regardless, a lot of schools think he has the tools to be an impact player at the collegiate level. That’s why Tennessee had to fight off so many other programs to keep him at home. He knew most of the Volunteer State wanted him to wear orange but says he wasn’t swayed by that.
“I wouldn’t say there was too much pressure,” Phillips said. “There was a little pressure but, at the end of the day, this was where I felt the most comfortable, so it all worked out.”
His initial tour of Tennessee was so impressive that he nearly committed on the spot. His relatives were impressed, too.
“My family is big Tennessee fans,” he said. “My grandfather actually came on my first visit here, and he loved it. We all loved it. We were almost ready to commit then. It was so exciting to see how the coaches take care of the players and how much they care about the players – not just on the field but off the field, as well. They want you to succeed in all areas of life.”
Mature beyond his years, Phillips understands that success in football is temporary, so developing into a well-rounded person is of paramount importance to him.
“Football is an end,” he said. “Even if you play in the NFL, everybody doesn’t have a long career. Maybe the average career is three years. Football is going to end one day, so you have to work hard in school to be a better person overall, not just on the football field.”
Although his first tour of Tennessee was terrific, Phillips listened to a lot of pitches before announcing a commitment. Two of the best pitches came from good friends Kahlil McKenzie and Darrin Kirkland, both of whom committed to the Vols previously.
|TENNESSEE DEFENSIVE END DEREK BARNETT|
“They were on me, but it was all good,” Phillips recalled with a laugh. “I had probably more friends on Tennessee’s football team than any other school, so that was really big. They (McKenzie and Kirkland) were on me the whole weekend (prior to his commitment), and even before then they’d been texting me here and there.”
Describing the recruiting process as “pretty stressful,” Phillips conceded he is “glad it’s over with…. It was a long, hard process but I feel like at the end I just grinded and decided Tennessee was the best place for me. It was a hard decision because the other schools are good institutions with good coaching staffs but I just felt like Tennessee was the right place for me at the end of the day.”
Ultimately, proximity to the family home in Nashville was a key factor in his decision.
“I felt like this was the best place for me and my family moving forward,” Phillips said. “I’m a family type of guy, and getting my family to come and see me play a lot of times during my career is very important to me. At other places they couldn’t do that as much as they could here.”
Phillips is one of 10 four-stars in a Vol recruiting class that features three five-star commitments and a No. 4 national ranking by Scout. He understands that fans foresee great things from this group of newcomers.
“There’s high expectations for our freshman class, so we have to put in work in the classroom and on the field just to show you guys (media) how good we can be,” he said. “As the season progresses we’ll see how it goes. We definitely have enough talent to be as good as people say but we still have to work hard to get to that point.”
Tennessee also landed a top-five class a year ago, and many of those signees played key roles as the 2014 Vols capped a 7-6 season with a 45-28 beat-down of Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. As a result, there is tremendous momentum and enthusiasm in Big Orange Country these days, among fans and players alike.
“It’s a lot of excitement,” Phillips said. “We have great expectations for next year. We feel like we can go far, maybe have a run at the playoffs. The teams that have been at that level had to work hard, so we have to work even harder than them to be there. We have great expectations for next year, though.”
Phillips speaks with Knoxville media