It’s no secret that the Illini haven’t been as well represented in the NFL Draft as they were during the Zook era. Fortunately, that trend seems poised to change in the near future, as a new contingent of former Illini hope to play alongside alumni like Clayton Fejedelem, Geronimo Allison, Whitney Mercilus, Justin Hardee, and others.
Del’Shawn Phillips has long had the physical tools and football instincts to contribute at the next level, as we discussed when reviewing draft candidates last summer. Lovie Smith leaned on Phillips heavily last season as he was the most experienced linebacker on the roster and certainly also one of the most talented.
Impact on the Illini
Phillips had a successful 2018 season, finishing with 95 tackles, 6.0 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 7 passes deflected, as well as a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Each of those stats was an improvement over Phillips’ 2017 numbers, and his efforts earned him an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention nod from the media. Phillips led the team in interceptions and tied for the lead in total tackles with fellow linebacker Jake Hansen. He also made some eye-opening highlight plays along the way:
Del'Shawn Phillips INT pic.twitter.com/DmvI7jzQEC— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 15, 2018
Phillips attended Illinois’ March Pro Day event and posted some very promising numbers. Per 247, Phillips ran a 4.59 40-yard dash, and had team-best results in the vertical jump (37 inches) and broad jump (10’ 1”). He also lifted 20 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
As with many of his counterparts on the Illinois defense last season, Phillips had room to improve with regards to his angles and finishing his tackles:
Hansen, Phillips, and Watkins might be the 3 best tacklers on Illinois. And yet… pic.twitter.com/PseN8oLMkg— Illinois Football Breakdown (@ILLFBBreakdown) October 17, 2018
Another problem that was by no means exclusive to Phillips was the inconsistent ability to reach and plug assigned gaps.
This defense is broken. Late reads, missed assignments, lack of playmaking.— Illinois Football Breakdown (@ILLFBBreakdown) October 23, 2018
Here, the C and RT move up to run block on a draw. Hansen is slow to react, and gets wiped. Phillips reacts quickly, but by trying to run around a block instead of staying in his gap. pic.twitter.com/WCsMtyBUJs
Fortunately, the physical tools are there for Phillips, and these are the mistakes that can be corrected through coaching and film study.
Impact in the NFL
As a thinner and quicker linebacker, Phillips would likely be best served playing in a 3-4 defense as an outside or Will linebacker. Phillips excelled at pass rushing during his time at Illinois, and playing in one of those roles would make the best use of his straight-line speed. A recent comparison for this role would be former Illini James Crawford, who is now a linebacker with the Green Bay Packers. Crawford has a similar build to Phillips, and was able to crack the depth chart in Green Bay, as he played in 16 games and racked up nine tackles in 2018.
In addition to the Packers, Phillips could make an impact with other 3-4 teams, or could play a role similar to former Illini Michael Buchanan on the New England Patriots in some of their hybrid looks.
Phillips was a standout college linebacker whose abilities and attitude will no doubt pay dividends among the younger linebackers on the Illini roster. Phillips has an uphill battle to climb before he hears his name called on draft day, but by all indications he’s doing everything in his power to turn his weaknesses into his strengths and reach his goal. I believe that he will be drafted in round 6 or 7 due in part to his dedication and work ethic, although his connections to Lovie Smith won’t hurt either.
We thank Del’Shawn Phillips for two great years in Memorial Stadium and look forward to cheering for him on Sundays — whether that’s as a late-round pick or undrafted free agent.
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