Phillips leading Illini defense as lone senior


URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — To be successful, Del’Shawn Phillips knows the Illinois defense will need to have some fight.

“Remember the movie 300? We slim but we’re warriors,” Phillips said. “That’s what we do.”

If that’s true, that would make Phillips something like the King Leonidas of the group. The linebacker is the team’s only senior on defense.

“It just put me in a position to be a leader, more so forced to be a leader,” he continued.” But I don’t mind taking that role. I’m a leader period.”

“He’s pretty much been a leader in junior college, high school. So, we have a set of high expectations for him and looking forward to seeing him carry through on that,” defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson explained.

Phillips finished the 2017 season with a team-high 85 tackles. He is one of only three upperclassmen in the unit, along with sophomore Jake Hansen who started one game at linebacker. With the departures of fellow seniors Tre Watson and Julian Jones, the linebacker corps is not only lacking experience, but depth.

“You’ve got young guys who are going to make some young-guy mistakes,” Nickerson added. “So, for us, it’s just about getting them exposed to as many situations and as much adversity as possible in training camp.”

“We love the game. We’ve got a solid corps that can make plays and be big playmakers,” Phillips said. “So, I’m not really worried about the depth.”

It helps, too, to have a year of Division I football under his belt.

“A lot more comfortable. I know the defensive schemes. I got it all under control. I know where I’m supposed to be so I can play a lot faster,” he continued.

Faster and better as Illinois looks to improve a defense that ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing defense.

Annice McEwan also talked with Robert Rosenthal from

“Rob, early into the fall camp, but what are you looking for here in these first couple of weeks?”

“Probably growth from the freshmen. Everybody’s a sophomore now. Everybody’s got a full year. Lovie is going to lean on that 2017 class over and over again over the next three years. So, you want to see advancement. A lot of the guys a lot of times seemed lost last year. That’s going ot happen for freshmen, but now you want to see them begin to step into leadership roles.” 

“That defense as a whole is very young. How are they going to be able to develop on last year, given that there’s one senior.”

“Yeah, one senior not just in the starting lineup, on the entire roster, and it’s a senior that Lovie brought in as a junior college recruit last year. All of Tim Beckman’s defensive recruits are gone. He’s leaning completely on his own guys in year three. Only one senior, so you expect if this year’s a good year that next year could be a big leap forward.”

“Offensively, how well do you see them adjusting to Rod Smith’s offense?’

“I think everyone is surprised by AJ Bush. It seems to be the talk of camp the first two days. Not only has he looked good, he’s that confident kid. He’s got some swagger. He’s out there hooting and hollering, directing guys, and taking leadership. You know college coaches. They love that. They love the guy, especially if it’s the quarterback, who’s going to take charge and be the vocal leader, that type of thing. That’s probably the most impressive thing so far.”

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