Unlike some Tennessee freshmen, defensive end Kyle Phillips is fine with a little hard coaching from the Vols’ head man. Heck, Phillips’ mom, a strong proponent of tough love, may be even harder to please than Butch Jones.
“She might be,” Phillips said with a laugh.
Teresa Phillips, director of athletics at Tennessee State University, is a strong lady who has raised a strong son. A consensus four-star prospect at Nashville’s Hillsboro High School, Kyle recently became the first Vol freshman to have the black stripe removed from his helmet, underscoring the respect he has earned from his teammates.
Though honored by the stripe removal, Phillips noted that he has "worked very hard, on the field and off the field. Taking tips from Derek (Barnett) and the older guys I think helped me a lot … just learning from them."
Ah, yes … the “older guys.” That would be senior ends Curt Maggitt and Chris Weatherd, junior Corey Vereen and sophomore Barnett. Recognizing Phillips’ eye-popping upside, they are sharing tips to hasten his development into a future star.
“I think the older players have really done a great job,” Butch Jones said. “We talk about power of the position, and I can never underestimate or devalue that. It's all about the power of the position — having nine strong in everything that you do — and that's a position group that takes great pride in the details.”
Phillips is blessed to learn from two of the premier pass rushers in college football. Maggitt recorded 11 sacks last fall, Barnett 10. They might be the best pair of edge rushers in college football, so practicing alongside them is a real luxury.
“It’s great,” Phillips said. “Those guys are some of the top players, especially on the defensive end side. Just learning from those guys – older guys that have been there and done that – is really exciting. It wasn't like I was thrown into anything. I've gotten a lot of help from Coach Strip and all the older guys."
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling recently compared Phillips as a freshman to Barnett as a freshman. That’s high praise indeed.
“Last year Derek had a remarkable season, so to get praise like that from Coach Strip shows I’m doing a little something right,” Phillips said. “I’ve been open to guidance from the older guys like Curt and Derek and Vereen. I’ve been having them show me the way.”
Asked to pinpoint the greatest lesson he has learned from first-teamers Maggitt and Barnett, Phillips replied: “Probably just effort and technique. I’m still struggling a little bit but I’m getting better each day. Following those guys is really helping me out.”
If Maggitt and Barnett were not so outstanding, Phillips might be starting as a true freshman in 2015, just as Barnett did in 2014. As much as he’d like to start, Phillips relishes his role as backup to a pair of great players.
“Having really good guys in front of you helps everybody compete better,” he said. “We can be a better defensive line overall, so I think it works out perfect.”
Whether he starts or not, Phillips projects to be a major contributor this fall. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder displays tremendous potential as a pass rusher.
“He's very long and has a very, very large wingspan,” Jones said. “He bends exceptionally well, and he can flat-out run. He has a tenacity about himself. He plays with a relentless approach to get to the football. He's really been challenged by Derek and Curt. I think he really watches their style of play, and he wants that.”
Phillips’ mental tools are just as impressive as his physical tools.
“He's a very smart player, and he has very good instincts,” Jones said. “He has some God-given abilities in terms of just overall stature. When you look at his frame, you look at his length, and the ability to make himself skinny and small coming off the edge, (along with) a burst on his get-off, we're very encouraged and excited about him."
No one is more excited about Phillips than good friend and fellow Nashvillian Derek Barnett, who played for rival Brentwood Academy.
“We were friends in high school,” Barnett said. “We always communicated and talked ball. One thing I like about Kyle is he always asked me a lot of questions…. He’s always asking me about my pass-rush moves and my bend (to stay low) and the technique I use off the edge. He always wants to get better at everything.”
To date, Kyle Phillips seems to be succeeding in that endeavor. If he continues he might please Butch Jones. Better yet, Phillips might please his mom.
Kyle Phillips on the record
Camp Clips: Vols D-line