If you like points, you probably loved Saturday night's clash of top-20 teams between Louisville and Miami. The Hurricanes brought the hammer on offense, scorching the Cardinals to the tune of 47 points and operating as a well-oiled machine. D'Eriq King hit some big throws early, Brevin Jordan made plenty of noise and the Canes narrowly missed a 50-burger. But for all the hoopla around the offensive performance of Miami, the defense had several standout performers that impressed me just as much, including former top-recruit Jaelan Phillips at defensive end.
Phillips didn't lead the team in tackles, he didn't log a sack, and he won't be found in the box score. But tape (or, in this case, the television broadcast) don't lie.
Phillips was a monster against the Cardinals—on the few occasions when Louisville thought it was a bright idea to block him with a tight end, Phillips dominated in the way you'd expect of a high-level talent, but no one is going to be targeting defensive ends in the NFL draft for their work against tight ends. Fortunately for Phillips, he was equally dominant off the left side of the defensive edge against the Cardinals' right tackle. Against the run, Phillips deconstructed gaps and helped funnel the ball carrier into pursuit with frequency, as Louisville consistently tried to work the edge with stretch concepts. There were a few near misses as a pass-rusher as well.
This isn't the first time I've seen Phillips play football. My first run-in came all the way back in 2017. I was in attendance at the Liberty Bowl to watch Josh Rosen and the UCLA Bruins square off against the Memphis Tigers in a non-conference game. Memphis won that day, 48-45, and Rosen provided clues to his future with several turnovers, including a backbreaker in a two-minute offense situation to tie or win the game. There was plenty of NFL talent on the field for that contest— Rosen, Darnay Holmes, Darrell Henderson, Anthony Miller, Tony Pollard, and Genard Avery, to name a few—but the biggest impression of that day was then-true freshman Phillips.
Phillips was, at the time, a prized 5-star recruit, the No. 2 overall player in the country, and ranked ahead of players like Chase Young, K'Lavon Chaisson, and some quarterback named Tua Tagovailoa. Phillips was dominant and arguably the best player on the field before tweaking his ankle and missing the remainder of the game.
You could tell he was a different breed. Physically, the traits were all there. And when watching Phillips back on the field and harassing the Cardinals' offensive attack on Saturday night, you can see those traits are still present.
It is for that reason that I am still absolutely "in" on Jaelan Phillips as an NFL draft prospect.
Sure, the price may have changed versus what we all expected. A talented top-recruit at one of the high-value positions in football will typically cost you a first-round selection, but Phillips has medical red tape and is unproven to this point with his development in technique on a week to week basis—it would be a surprise if he were to end up being an early selection. But the kind of natural talent Phillips has doesn't just go away.
A great example here is New England Patriots defensive lineman Byron Cowart. Our very own Trevor Sikkema did a great job outlining Cowart's trials as a college player in early 2019, but he, like Phillips, was once upon a time a prized recruit who saw his playing career go sideways. Redemption in the form of a strong final season at Maryland and then an effective pre-draft process helped Cowart get drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Patriots. Cowart started Week 1 for the Patriots on the defensive line last weekend and was effective as a rotational presence in the middle.
The path and hope of Phillips being a top draft choice has likely come and gone. But that doesn't mean his football story is over. Far from it.
A 5-star designation doesn't come from just grit and hard work—quite the contrary. Phillips has all of the needed physical skills to play football at the professional level. He showed that on Saturday night against the Cardinals. Consider me "in" on Phillips, the NFL Draft prospect; we'll just need the remainder of the draft process this winter to decide where the sweet spot is to target him.