Rookie key to Chargers success

After finishing last in the league in the touchdown passes allowed category last season, the San Diego Chargers needed to beef up their pass rush if their talented but green secondary was to have a chance to succeed. And while switching to the more aggressive 3-4 alignment was a solid step in that direction, improving the quality of the pass rushing personnel was no doubt the top priority.

With this in mind, the Chargers spent the 98th overall pick in the draft on sack artist Shaun Phillips. The 6-foot-3, 262 pounder left Purdue as the school's all-time leader in career sacks, besting the record previously held by current New England Patriots star linebacker Roosevelt Colvin. Now he will attempt to bring that productivity with him to the pro level.

Phillips already showed his mettle in preseason with four sacks and numerous pressures. The converted end also added two passes defensed, a definite surprise.

Being a rookie it is difficult to determine just how well Phillips' dominance as a college defensive end will transfer to success as a NFL linebacker, despite the preseason success. But if anyone is qualified to predict such a thing, it is Phillip's former college coach, Joe Tiller.

"He is a good athlete," says Tiller when asked about his former pupil. "He has a good feel for the game of football. He's got good vision and sees the field really well."

Phillips' success under Coach Tiller, however, came from the defensive end position, and the Chargers will employ Phillips as an outside rush linebacker. And while both positions get to rush the passer, an outside linebacker must be able to hold his own in coverage as well. And while this will indeed be a tall task for the rookie to handle, Coach Tiller believes that Phillips' instincts and vision will help make this transition notably easier.

"I think his vision will help him with that," predicts Coach Tiller. "I mean some guys can drop back but its like their feet are in cement, but Shaun wasn't that way. He has good field awareness."

And while the coach believes Phillips is capable of dropping back, he agrees that pass coverage will not be the strength of his game. "I don't think he's a coverage guy as much as he is a pass rusher. I think that is where he will make his biggest impact."

But just because Phillips' coverage skills may be raw does not mean his is not capable of succeeding in his transition to the linebacker position. In fact, Phillips reminds Coach Tiller of another former Boilermaker who made that same transition quite well.

"He's very similar to a guy we had in here a few years back named Roosevelt Colvin," recalls the coach. "He played for the Bears a few years ago and actually led them in sacks a couple of years."

And while Coach Tiller believes Phillips can succeed in the NFL just as his Purdue predecessor did, the coach sees one big difference between the two. That difference is the versatility of Phillips.

"The biggest difference was Shaun was a heavily recruited tight end out of high school," says Coach Tiller. "We actually used him in our goal line package as a tight end, and he caught some touchdown passes for us. He has really good hands, and I think he can definitely contribute in that role as well."

Though the Chargers are unlikely to use Phillips at tight end this early on in his developing career, that versatility bodes well for Phillips' transition to the special teams aspect of the game.

"We used him on punt team all the time," recalls Coach Tiller. "But he really didn't play that much on special teams for us because he was a four year starter and we typically don't play our starters on special teams. He certainly has the athleticism for it though."

According to Coach Tiller, the Chargers used the 98th pick in the draft on a player who is a natural pass rusher, has the versatility to play special teams, and possesses the athleticism to develop into a fine coverage player as well. So while the Chargers drafted Phillips to provide depth at the outside linebacker position, it seems they may have gotten more than even they could have expected.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@sandiegosports.net

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