Western CB Phillips bears similarity to Lions’ Agnew

Justin Rogers The Detroit News
Darius Phillips

Mobile, Ala. – Darius Phillips came to the Senior Bowl looking to rubber stamp an impressive college resume, but will leave the event having to rest on the film he put together the past three seasons at Western Michigan. He suffered an ankle injury during the first day of practice, ending his week.

A former wide receiver who reluctantly converted to cornerback three years ago, Phillips developed into one of the nation’s premier playmakers, both on defense and special teams. His 12 non-offensive touchdowns are an NCAA record.

Philips’ star shined the brightest in Western’s biggest matchups.

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In 2016, he recorded a pair of interceptions against Ohio State — one off Cardale Jones and another on a throw from J.T. Barrett. In two games against Michigan State, Phillips scored three touchdowns, two on kickoff returns and another a long fumble return. He added a pick for good measure. He also scored on a kickoff return against USC this year.

The return skills alone are enough to draw the attention of NFL decision-makers, but he also offers some intriguing potential at cornerback. He recorded 12 interceptions and 35 pass breakups in three seasons playing the position, returning five of the picks to the house.

And to think, he wanted nothing to do with the position change when it was initially suggested by former Broncos coach P.J. Fleck.

“I was going into my redshirt sophomore year and (former Western Michigan cornerback) Donald Celiscar was leaving,” Phillips said. “He was at a basketball game, I still remember, he came up to me and said, ‘Coach Fleck wants to move you to corner.’ I was like, ‘No, he’s not. I’m not playing corner.’

“The next week coach Fleck came up to me and asked me to play corner and I didn’t want to,” Phillips said. “He ignored it for a minute and at winter conditioning he brought me to his office and said, ‘I need to play corner,’ because Celiscar had ran out of eligibility. He told me to just play it through spring ball and to tell him if I liked it. The first spring practice I had two picks. After I had two picks, I just kept my head down and kept going.”

Phillips played outside at Western, but that might not be his best fit at the professional level. After measuring in just under 5-foot-10 at the event’s weigh in, he was told he would play nickel at the Senior Bowl. It was something he hadn’t done before, but was eager for the experience.

He also has limited experience in zone defense, having primarily played man coverage with the Broncos. But he does have the benefit of playing multiple techniques — both mirror and open slide — which will help him appeal to more teams in the draft.

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Sticking outside can’t be ruled out. Phillips has a good wingspan, negating some of the height concerns, and if measures well with his 40-yard dash and vertical jump at the combine in early March, that could further lessen concern of his ability to hang with NFL receivers. He certainly got plenty of experience practicing against Corey Davis, the Broncos star receiver who was selected in the first round last year.

Looking at the resume — a small school, ball-hawking corner with return skills and the ability to contribute on offense, Detroit Lions fans will quickly think of Jamal Agnew — a fifth-round draft pick in 2017 who earned first-team All-Pro honors as a punt returner.

Phillips, a Detroit native and Lions fan, admits he can see the similarities.

“I would say yeah, because I can play kick return, punt returner, corner, and this last year, I played a couple plays on offense,” Phillips said. “I would say I could compare myself to Jamal.”

Could the Lions double-dip in the late rounds and add a second versatile corner to its young secondary? It’s not out of the question. The team took the time to meet with Phillips at the Senior Bowl.

Wherever he ends up, if Phillips can have a similar impact to Agnew, the team that drafts him should be thrilled.