One of the most anticipated new starters of the 2012 season is at safety, where Adrian Phillips is expected to replace Blake Gideon and line up next to Kenny Vaccaro.
Phillips missed the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, and may have been out of sight, out of mind for some Texas fans.
But just wait. I think Phillips could be the type of all-conference performer no one is talking about. More on that in a minute.
PLAYING HURT: Let's get back to Phillips' shoulder surgery for a second (the recovery is on pace for him to be cleared for fall camp). Phillips played one of his best games as a Longhorn with an injury requiring surgery, much like Jackson Jeffcoat (who posted two sacks for minus-21 yards with a torn pectoral muscle).
In the Holiday Bowl against Cal, one of the better stories that went largely unnoticed was Phillips.
He had four tackles, including a sack, one caused fumble and one pressure while helping lead a defensive effort that held Cal to 7 rushing yards and 195 yards of total offense - all with a shoulder that required surgery.
So allow me to introduce Phillips' high school coach at Garland - Jeff Jordan - who had this to say upon my first question about the player known to Texas teammates as "AP."
"He's as good a leader as we've had here in the last 25 years," Jordan said. "A great kid who does the right thing. He does what he's supposed to do, takes care of his business. He's really good about that."
THE PLAYMAKER: When you look at Phillips' two seasons at Texas so far, all you see is a guy who makes plays when he's on the field. He's played in 24 games with five starts, posting 52 tackles (36 solo).
Last year alone, Phillips had 43 tackles, including four for loss (1 sack), two interceptions, five pass breakups, three pressures, three caused fumbles and one fumble recovery. Most of that came with the nagging shoulder injury.
After talking to those who have coached him, I'm starting to sense Phillips could have an Earl Thomas type breakout year in 2012. Maybe not an eight-interceptions type breakout year, like we saw from Thomas in 2009.
But maybe somewhere in between Thomas' 2008 season (72 tackles, 2 INT, 4 forced fumbles, 1 blocked kick and 17 pass breakups) and Thomas' 2009 season (77 tackles, 8 INT, 1 forced fumble, 16 pass breakups).
"He's tough and he's smart, so you can't beat that combination," Jordan said of Phillips in his time at Garland. "From his sophomore year on, he was always under control. He never got in a hurry. He's a guy who the game just unfolds for. It goes real slow for him."
MR. VERSATILITY: Phillips is so versatile that he's listed as a cornerback in the 2012 Texas spring football guide, and he's lined up at corner for Texas and held up well. But with Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs at corner, Phillips' smarts and playmaking will be needed at safety. But he can do it all - a prototypical Duane Akina defensive back.
"Adrian loves the way Coach (Manny) Diaz and Coach (Duane) Akina use him," said Darrin Sharp, the assistant head coach at Garland, who also served as Phillips' QB coach in high school. "They move him around quite a bit, and he loves it. They even let him blitz."
Sharp said Phillips has a "no-nonsense" approach to football.
"He's just a competitor," Sharp said. "He comes from a solid, hard-working family and knows he has the talent to possibly play at the next level. He's not going to let his friends steer him in the wrong direction because he's a head-strong, young man."
Both Jordan and Sharp saw Phillips could be special his sophomore year at Garland.
"After his freshman year, going into his sophomore year, it was an eye opener for us because he didn't shy away from competing against the juniors and seniors," Sharp said. "You could tell he was special from an early age.
"He played corner and safety, receiver and quarterback. He wanted the ball in his hands, and when he had it in his hands, anything could happen."
Added Jordan, "He never left the field. Offense, defense, returned punts, returned kicks. He did everything."
LOVES THE BIG STAGE: Jordan said the bigger the game, the better Phillips seemed to play.
"His junior year against Duncanville, he made an unbelievable catch and run with less than two minutes to go and us down for an 87-yard touchdown that won the game," Jordan said. "It was just an unbelievable play.
"He went up over the top of a guy and pulled down the ball and broke a tackle and took it all the way into the end zone. It was a highlight play on all the TV stations in Dallas.
"In a huge game for us against Rowlett, Adrian had to come in and play quarterback for us. He threw for 100-plus yards and ran for 227 yards, and we beat them and clinched the district championship. I can't say enough about Adrian's competitive spirit."
Phillips is close to fellow Garland product Tevin Jackson, who could also become a key contributor at linebacker this season. Both went to Oklahoma's junior day and then went to Texas' the next weekend and both committed to Texas right after their visit.
"They love it at Texas," Jordan said. "They're excited about what's going on."
And I think there's reason to be very excited about Phillips in 2012.
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