Stanford's Phillips offers Lions chance to upgrade D-line

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Mobile, Ala. — Haloti Ngata has indicated he’s not ready to retire, but even if Detroit Lions re-sign the five-time All-Pro for a 13th season, the team could stand to add some depth at defensive tackle in the upcoming NFL draft.

There’s a variety of talent that could be available in the first round, from the 340-pound behemoth Vita Vea, who has drawn comparisons to Ngata, to Michigan standout Maurice Hurst, an undersized, but athletic interior lineman capable of consistently penetrating into the backfield.

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But if the Lions miss out on a top prospect, or opt to go a different direction with their No. 20 pick, there’s still capable talent to be found during the draft’s second day. The team is getting a closer look at one of those options at the Senior Bowl this week.

Harrison Phillips is a 303-pound nose tackle out of Stanford. Typically, players at that position take up space, command the attention of multiple defenders, allowing teammates to earn tally marks in the box score. But not Phillips. In 2017, the two-gapping lineman racked up a staggering 103 tackles, including 17 behind the line of scrimmage.

“I appreciate the coaching staff for not seeing me as a 340-pound guy who can’t move — understanding my abilities, understanding that I’m more athletic than the typical nose, faster than the typical nose, knowing my strengths,” Phillips said.

What stands out about Phillips, beyond the tackle numbers, is his stamina. He averaged nearly 57 snaps per game in 2017. That’s 11 more per contest than A’Shawn Robinson played for the Lions last season.

Phillips said the ability to handle the workload is a combination of his practice habits, going hard for Stanford’s grueling 2.5-hour sessions, and willpower. His days as a high school wrestler, where he won three state championships, also probably have something to do with it.

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“I’ve had wrestling matches go into triple overtime before, so a nine-minute match and three-minute (of overtime), so 12 minutes straight, you’re just brawling,” he said. “You think playing a drive is hard, try wrestling for two minutes straight. That’s really hard.”

In the first day of practices at the Senior Bowl, Phillips flashed his ability to dominate, particularly in the one-on-one drills against the offensive lineman. He showcased both speed and power, and like a championship-caliber wrestler, he has a knack for winning with leverage.

On one snap, he drove former Michigan center Mason Cole back several yards before putting the offensive lineman on his rear end.

Comically listed at 255 pounds on his Stanford bio, Phillips hasn’t been that light since his freshman year, when he came in as a defensive end recruit. He had bulked up to 285 by his sophomore campaign and finished his playing days around 307.

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And while it remains unclear what kind of defensive scheme the Lions will run under presumptive head coach Matt Patricia, Phillips is confident he can excel in any system, whether that’s continuing to control a pair of gaps like he was routinely asked to do at Stanford, or attacking a single gap the way the Lions’ front has operated the past several seasons.

“I know it’s out a few years, but in high school, that’s all I did. It was see ball, go get ball,” Phillips said. “I think I had almost 40 tackles for loss, almost 20 sacks. The competition level, I understand that, but it was just, go get it, go get it. When you can anticipate what you’re going to get from a blocker, just from tendencies and watching enough film, and take that into consideration, if you know what’s going to come and you’re told to just find the ball, it should be pretty easy.

“If that’s the type of defense that drafts me, I feel very comfortable playing in that.”