This story has been updated to correct a previous version that stated Doug Marrone and Tyrone Wheatley were fired by Syracuse in 2012. In fact, Marrone left to take the Buffalo Bills head-coaching job and Wheatley followed him there. The News regrets the error.
How did Darius Phillips, college football’s latest sensation, end up at Western Michigan?
Truth is, he almost didn’t.
Phillips was all set to head to Syracuse, a Power 5 school, when head coach Doug Marrone left to take the head coaching job with the Buffalo Bills. As a result, running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley followed Marrone to Buffalo. Wheatley, the former Michigan star, was the lead recruiter of Phillips, who, like Wheatley, was a Dearborn Heights Robichaud product.
So when Wheatley left, Phillips didn’t have any strong connections to Syracuse, so he re-opened his recruiting. Central Michigan called. So did Eastern Michigan. But it was P.J. Fleck, the new coach at Western Michigan, who made the best pitch.
Phillips became a Bronco. Since, he’s become a star.
“I was going there because of Tyrone Wheatley,” Phillips said the other day. “When he left, I didn’t know anybody else.”
Now, day by day — 100-yard kick return for a touchdown after 100-yard kick return for a touchdown —there are few left who don’t know much about Phillips, a special-teams and defensive star in Kalamazoo.
In Saturday’s loss to Michigan State, he had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the fourth 100-yarder of his career — including his second in as many weeks (he had one against Southern Cal, too), and his second in three years against Michigan State.
He also had a 67-yard fumble return for a touchdown against the Spartans in earning Mid-American Conference special-teams player-of-the-week honors for a second consecutive week. Phillips, now a senior, has 13 career touchdowns, and has scored in five different ways. The only ways missing — rushing, and passing.
He doesn’t expect to get either one of those.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be a running back,” he said, with a laugh.
Asked if he might lobby new coach Tim Lester for a crack at it this season, he said, “No, no, and I’m OK with it.”
As a four-year player in the MAC, Phillips has played football games on many different days — including the typical Saturdays, as well as the weekday games they call MACtion.
Never five years ago, however, did he envision himself playing someday on Sundays. Now, that possibility is becoming exceptionally real.
He’s positioning himself nicely for the NFL Draft, and those Devin Hester comparisons — they don’t hurt.
Not that Phillips, who tries to tune out social media as much as possible, has ever heard them.
“I actually haven’t heard of that till you just said it,” Phillips said. “That’s a huge honor. It’s great to be in a conversation with somebody as great as Devin Hester.”
Phillips was a star receiver at Robichaud, and after redshirting his first year at Western Michigan, he was a receiver in his redshirt freshman season, too. After the year, though, Fleck took stock of the program, noticed the team was going to be thin on defense, and approached Phillips with the idea of moving to the other side of the ball.
Phillips, now 21, was reluctant at first, and that’s an epic understatement. But Fleck asked him to trust him, and promised this was Phillips’ best shot at a career in the NFL someday.
All of a sudden, someday is not that far away for Philips, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound cornerback who now has 11 career interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
NFL Draft projection sites have him as a fifth- or sixth-round pick, but that’s only likely to keep improving over the course of this season.
“Actually, I couldn’t have believed (the NFL chatter),” he said, ahead of this week’s home game against Idaho. “It’s like a dream come true.
“It’s just praying and believing in yourself, and coaches believing in you.”