To say Jaelan Phillips has had a long journey, gives other long journeys too much credit.
Once the nation’s No. 1-rated recruit, in two years at UCLA, Phillips dealt with an ankle injury, a wrist injury in an off-the-field accident and a concussion that led him to retire his football dreams. After deciding he wanted to come back to the game, he transferred to the Miami Hurricanes, sitting out the 2019 season before becoming eligible to play.
Now a redshirt junior, the anticipation for his UM debut was only intensified ahead of fall camp when fellow defensive end and top NFL draft prospect Gregory Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season. Phillips is in a position to start opposite of Temple transfer Quincy Roche or at least be in the rotation of top three defensive ends with redshirt freshman Jahfari Harvey.
“A lot of things have happened that have been good. A lot of things have happened that have been bad,” said Phillips in a Tuesday night web conference with reporters. “A year ago, when I was back in L.A., when I had stopped playing football at UCLA, wasn’t committed anywhere, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to be out here playing in Miami and also being in the best physical shape of my life.”
The year away from practice allowed him to get back into football playing shape. When he was a top recruit in high school, he was playing at 245 to 250 pounds. When he first arrived at Miami, he had lost muscle and dipped down to 225. Spending the past year-plus focusing on regaining his strength, he’s now up to 270 pounds.
“I would put Jaelan Phillips in the 99th percentile of any player I’ve ever coached, as far as physical attributes,” said Miami defensive line coach Todd Stroud, who has coached at nine other college programs since 1986, including Florida State, Auburn and N.C. State. “His ability to run and jump and twitch is exactly what you want at that position.”
Stroud said Phillips “runs like a safety” with the added weight. Phillips attributes it to the countless hours in the weight room, a push from strength and conditioning coach David Feeley and nutrition.
“My diet’s crazy,” he said. “I have to eat around 260 grams of protein a day just to kind of maintain what I got going on. It was just a mixture of hard work with coach Feeley.
“When I first came in, I wasn’t cleared to work out in fall camp, so I was literally, every single day, working out for two hours during practice. I think that time is definitely what I needed to let my body naturally get back.”
While Phillips’ body is back — in fact, better than ever — it’s also his love for the game that has been rekindled after time away.
“I kind of got to the point where I was last guy in, first guy out,” said Phillips of the late stages of his UCLA career. “I wasn’t really investing in football, was focusing on things outside of football.”
These days, he finds himself daydreaming of making plays on the gridiron.
“Football’s just in my head 24/7,” Phillips said. “I’m watching film like a fanatic.”
When Rousseau opted out, Phillips immediately showed his confidence to step up for the team, tweeting within minutes to Hurricanes fans, “No need to fear…”
“The reaction like that was just to reassure some of the ‘Canes fans that, Greg might be gone, but you have nothing to worry about,” he said.
Rousseau’s departure not only opened up an enhanced opportunity for Phillips. It also gave him a chance to get his old jersey number back. Phillips wore No. 95 with Miami while Rousseau still occupied 15, but he has since switched to No. 15 in practice.
“I’m not trying to fill his shoes. I’m not trying to be the next Greg Rousseau,” he said. “Fifteen, it was his number, but it was also my number since I was 7 years old.
“My focus right now isn’t getting caught up in, ‘Oh, am I going to be the next Greg? Am I going to fill these shoes?’ It’s just coming in and doing everything I can to stay focused and to just do the best that I can.”
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