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WMU’s Phillips makes smooth transition to defense

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

When Darius Phillips went looking for a college to continue his football career after graduating from Dearborn Heights Robichaud, there certainly was a lot to like about Western Michigan.

For starters, the offense was trending toward being rather prolific.

And he was a wide receiver — and a pretty good one.

But he’s not a wide receiver anymore, a transition that didn’t happen with him kicking and screaming, but it might have been close.

“He was one of those kids,” Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck said, referring to some young players wanting to be the star. “First of all, we loved him on offense, but we had no depth on defense.

“We didn’t really have an impactful starting corner that we knew could be a truly lockdown corner. You win championships with defense. We’ve gotta start building our defense.”

So, following Phillips’ freshman year as a wide receiver — he caught 32 passes for 479 yards and two touchdowns — Fleck pulled his sophomore-to-be aside with a proposal.

Two years later, Phillips has settled into his role so nicely that he’s a major reason Western Michigan is 4-0 heading into its Mid-American Conference opener at Central Michigan Saturday.

Two years ago, Fleck recalled started the spirited conversation with Phillips like this: “Do you trust me? You’ve gotta trust me here. In about two years, you’ll be thankful because your NFL career as a wideout might not last very long.”

Phillips, a 21-year-old junior, told Fleck he didn’t want to leave offense.

But as with everyone who spends any time with Fleck, they tend to get the idea he knows what’s best.

So Phillips (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) told Fleck, “I don’t like it, but I’ll give it a shot.”

It’s been such a success — last weekend against Georgia Southern, Phillips returned an interception for a touchdown and a kickoff 100 yards for a score — that he doesn’t event want to return to offense.

“I’ll tell you this, I can’t even get him to think about offense anymore. ‘I ain’t coming over,’ ” Fleck said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Star Wars.’ It’s kind of like going over to the ‘Dark Side.’ ”

Western Michigan’s defense is allowing just over 20 points through four games, less than half what the offense is putting up. It held two Big Ten teams — Northwestern and Illinois — to 21 and 10 points, respectively.

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A bigger challenge awaits with Central Michigan and quarterback Cooper Rush.

But it’s just another test for a program on the rise — and a defense that wouldn’t be where it is without Phillips.

“Coach Fleck always says that a humble team can get beat by anyone,” Phillips said last weekend. “But a confident team can beat anyone.”

The turning point in his transition to defense — and his attitude about the switch — came last season in nonconference, when he had two interceptions in a loss to Ohio State. He finished with five, including one returned for a touchdown.

Phillips, whose interception last weekend was his first this season, is fourth on the team with 12 solo tackles (19 overall), including one for a loss.

Then there’s his special teams work.

As Western Michigan’s go-to guy on kickoff and punt returns, Phillips has a kickoff return for a touchdown each of his three seasons, and returned a punt for a touchdown against North Carolina Central this year.

“If you watch our games, watch the punt returns, kick returns, defense, he’s in on everything,” Fleck said. “We’d run him into the ground.”

And that’s certainly not Fleck’s objective.

Trust him.

Darius Phillips (14) is fourth on Western Michigan with 12 solo tackles (19 overall.