In every good defensive scheme, there's a player who makes it run without getting the stats. For many, it's a nose tackle who eats up multiple blocks. For others, it's a cornerback who is so good he rarely gets tested. I once covered a player who finished a season with just 16 tackles, but he earned second-team All-Big 12 mention from the league's coaches because they could see the kind of impact he made, hidden away from the box score.
The past few weeks, I'm not sure that said player on the Longhorns hasn't been Adrian Phillips. Phillips has been deployed in a variety of ways by Texas defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, and though his stats have gone up under the Longhorns' new defensive boss, so much of what he does isn't really measured by traditional statistics.
Theory in hand, I approached Robinson about the senior safety after the Oklahoma game, where Phillips had nine tackles and a quarterback hurry in a sparkling performance before leaving the game with a stinger.
"Adrian Phillips is an outstanding football player," Robinson said. "Coaches sometimes get seduced by physical skills, but you have got to learn how to quantify the intangible characteristics. That kid is physically gifted but the intangible characteristics that he brings to our defense is hard to quantify. He brings a lot to the table. He gets guys lined up, he's always the same guy every day and he's a good football player."
Phillips, of course, earned plenty of vitriol for his performance last year, but he appears to have found a home in Robinson's defense. I've assembled some clips below to look at Phillips's impact.
Here's what Robinson was talking about from a mental standpoint. Notice that Phillips, basically lined up as a linebacker here in a Dime set, never stops talking to his fellow defenders. And when Blake Bell audibles, Phillips checks to the other side of Edmond, where he swallows up the running back on his route. Bell has nowhere to go with the ball, and he ends up sandwiched between several Longhorn defenders short of the first down.
This isn't the only time he did this … I noticed multiple other clips where Phillips made a read and stuck with the back out of the backfield, robbing Bell of his safety valve.
Here, Phillips lines up on the outside edge. The Longhorns run a zone blitz, sending five — two linemen, linebacker Steve Edmond, cornerback Quandre Diggs and Phillips — while dropping defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and defensive tackle Chris Whaley. Notice that Phillips hesitates just a tick off the ball, allowing the tackle to make contact with Jeffcoat, who fakes forward before backpedaling into coverage. That hesitation, and the lineman choosing to "block" Jeffcoat means that Phillips, who accelerates quickly, comes free. He hits Bell, forcing the interception to Whaley, who returns it for a touchdown.
One more part to this play, which doesn't have to do with his safeties duties, but is notable nonetheless. Keep an eye on the end of the play, when Phillips sizes up Tyrus Thompson, all 6-foot-6, 320 pounds of him on the return. He hits Thompson with a clean block at about the 8, knocking Thompson's helmet off.
Now, Thompson wasn't going to make the tackle. But that's just the kind of nasty edge that the Sooners have boasted of late over the Longhorns. And that block, along with Whaley's overall return, really helped to set the tone for the game.
These next two clips are together.
A football coach once told me that a good centerfield safety was like an insurance policy. You hope you never have to use it, but if you do, you're sure glad you have it. Here's the point: good centerfielders aren't often noticed because the work that they do isn't supposed to be noticeable. You might not notice them in pass coverage because they took away the deep throw that the quarterback wanted to make, and he had to clutch it.
Of course, a more obvious duty is the need to serve as the last line of defense when a play gets to the last level. In both of these, Phillips ends a play — which opened up because of teammates' mistakes — before they became huge, game-changing plays. He did the same on a play in the Iowa State game, firing down the alley and cutting down the running back on what could have been a touchdown-type play.
Also, something that you'll notice on the second play is the presence of Mykkele Thompson in the box. Last season, against spread teams, Texas was obligated to play a ton of two-high coverages. But Phillips has been sound enough back there this year that the Longhorns have been able to run more Cover 1 and Cover 3, putting an extra man into the box on early and running downs without worrying about getting killed over the top.
Unfortunately, without All-22 film, it's tough to show that part of Phillips's impact. But Thompson has found a real role as an in-the-box safety and outside force player, and a large part of the reason he's been able to settle down there has been the play of Phillips on the back end.
In those clips, Phillips lined up at all three levels — on the line, in the box as a linebacker-type player and as a deep centerfielder — and at all three levels, he made an impact on the game.