The Handley High School product knew where he wanted to play — at Auburn. He knew if the Tigers offered him, he would take them up on the chance. However, with decision time looming, he still had no offer from the Tigers.
Phillips instead had to consider the possibility that he would be unable to realize his dream of playing in the SEC. If that scenario played out, he said he thought Georgia Southern might be where he considered playing.
His phone rang as he debated his other options.
It was Auburn.
“I was excited that I would be 45 minutes away from home and there’s nothing better than playing in the SEC,” Phillips said. “It’s a big opportunity to get more TV time and to better myself at a different level.”
Phillips signed with Auburn the next day. That left the question: What position would he play in college?
The 6-foot, 285-pounder took snaps as a defensive tackle in high school, but Phillips made a name for himself as a tailback because of his freakish athleticism. Handley coach Mike Battles said Phillips ran a 4.8 in the 40. He also scored more than 50 career touchdowns and ran for 1,000 yards three times in his high school career, including his freshman year when a broken hand forced him to carry the ball with his left hand instead of his right.
Phillips’ size might make it difficult for him to be an every-down feature back, but Battles is convinced Phillips can succeed regardless of position.
“He had that ability with how he could do it all — run, tackle, kick,” Battles said. “He was such a rare high school athlete with that size and speed. There wasn’t ever a question about whether he would play college ball. The question was where he was going.”
It nearly was somewhere other than Auburn. It wasn’t until D.J. Howard decided on Clemson and Marcus Lattimore committed to South Carolina that the Tigers suddenly had a spot open.
Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn wasted little time in claiming Phillips for the offensive side of the ball.
“We were very aware of him throughout the whole deal,” Malzahn said. “He’s very versatile. He’s a big, athletic guy, and I don’t think there are many people around the country like him.”
Malzahn intends to use Phillips in his fast-paced shotgun offense as a short-yardage back. He hasn’t given Phillips an ideal playing weight for the fall, saying simply that he wants Phillips as big and as fast as he can possibly be.
Phillips thinks that means playing at 265 pounds — a far cry from the 290 pounds he is carrying around now. Phillips knows it would be a significant challenge to drop 25 pounds by the start of two-a-days, but thinks he can contribute as a freshman anyway.
“I’ll be blocking and catching the ball in the flat,” said Phillips, who is currently enrolled in classes at Auburn. “I’ll probably be a short-yardage, goal-line type back.”
In other words, think a bigger version of Eric Smith — Auburn’s current H-back.