Phillips a rising star in Giants' defense
|Larry French/Getty Images|
|The Giants are expecting more this season from second-year safety Kenny Phillips.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Growing up 15 minutes from the University of Miami campus, Kenny Phillips idolized Hurricanes such as Ed Reed and Sean Taylor. His choice came down to either Miami or Tennessee, and he decided to go with the program that could be referred to as Safety U.
Phillips eventually became a star for Miami before becoming a first-round draft choice for the Giants in '08. Some scouts said he was the best tackling safety they'd seen in years. Phillips quickly asserted himself as a playmaker in his first training camp, but he wasn't transferring it to the field.
His best season in college had actually been '06, when he could lean on safety Brandon Meriweather (now with the Patriots) in terms of making calls. He was available late in the first round of the '08 draft (No. 31), in part, because he slipped a little bit without Meriweather.
He couldn't crack the starting lineup heading into his rookie season with the Giants because he was thinking too much instead of trusting his instincts. A year later, he's poised to become one of the most dynamic players in the division.
He's my pick from the NFC East in ESPN.com's Emerging Stars series. Phillips has once again been one of the best players during training camp, but this season there's reason to believe he'll take that production to the field.
"There's a calmness about [Phillips]," Giants general manager Jerry Reese told ESPN.com earlier this month. "It never looks like he's straining. Everything comes easy for him. He's had a great camp and you can start to see that he's got some star qualities."
Even the grouchiest man in camp, coach Tom Coughlin, has gushed about Phillips. He'll replace James Butler at strong safety and play opposite Michael Johnson. Butler joined the Rams in free agency, but even if he'd stayed, he wasn't going to hold off Phillips another season.
This past offseason, Phillips added 15 pounds of muscle and is now playing at 217. And the funny thing is, he doesn't have a clue how he did it. He'd always had a tough time retaining weight, but something changed. Now, one of the surest tacklers on the team has a more menacing look about him. And as evidenced by several highlight-reel interceptions early in camp, Phillips didn't have to sacrifice any speed.
"I'm way more confident in the defense this season," Phillips said Friday via phone. "I'm playing football now and I'm not having to think so much. It's like back in college or something."
Speaking of college, Phillips gives a lot of credit to former Hurricanes such Reed and Bennie Blades for his development. He said Reed taught him how to break down film and recognize certain formations. There's a reverence in Phillips' voice when he talks about Reed.
Phillips met Blades on the sideline of the Miami-Oklahoma game in '06. Blades, who was never shy on confidence, reminded Phillips that he once had 15 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble in a game against the Sooners. He challenged Phillips to repeat the feat and then offered him feedback throughout the game.
"He was basically coaching the whole game," Phillips said of Blades. "We lost pretty big, but I ended up having 14 or 15 tackles and an interception. All I was missing was the forced fumble."
By his account, it took Phillips at least eight games in '08 before "things started slowing down." In Week 8, he helped ignite the Giants in a come-from-behind 21-14 win in Pittsburgh. On one play, he recognized from his film study where running back Mewelde Moore was headed in a pass pattern. He raced across the field and annihilated Moore, which drew a 15-yard penalty for an excessive hit.
Despite the penalty, the play energized the Giants' sideline and the defense quickly caused a turnover. Phillips grabbed the second interception of his career in that game and finished with five for the season. Now he has a bigger goal in mind.
"Ever since high school, my goal was to get 10 interceptions and four touchdowns in a season," Phillips said. "I think I can make it happen."
Phillips said "it almost feels like cheating" to have so much talent in the front seven. He thinks the chaos near the line of scrimmage will make life relatively easy for the secondary. Coaches have asked Phillips to be more vocal this season, and that's something that comes pretty natural to him.
"When you're a starter, you're automatically looked upon as a leader," Phillips said. "Last year, James Butler got everyone lined up. Now I've got to make some of those calls and I'm looking forward to it."
I brought up safeties such as the Redskins' LaRon Landry and the Eagles' Quintin Mikell, but it's obvious Phillips thinks he's ready to overtake those players. He takes a great deal of pride in his tackling, and that's one of the reasons he's watched film of former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins.
"I like running into stuff," Phillips said. "Big or small, it doesn't matter. I really, really hate missing tackles."
He said Clinton Portis and Marion Barber are the toughest players in the division to tackle -- since he wasn't allowed to choose his teammate Brandon Jacobs. Phillips is one of the brightest young stars on what I believe to be the best defense in the NFC East.
We should be able to eliminate the word "emerging" when Phillips goes to the Pro Bowl in '09. After all, Justin Tuck was my choice last season.