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Google surveys the recruits: Ladarious Phillips

In which a recruit’s name is plugged into Google and the bits of information that trickle out–guru ratings, newspaper profiles, YouTube highlights, all that stuff–are synthesized in the hopes of getting a clearer picture of the player we’ll see at Auburn next fall. Previously: Jessel Curry, Craig Sanders, Roszell Gayden, Brandon Mosley, Demetruce McNeal, Jake Holland, Shaun Kitchens, Cody Parkey, Cameron Newton, Joel Bonomolo, LaDarius Owens, Antonio Goodwin, Kenneth Carter, Ryan White, Dakota Mosley, and Trovon Reed, Ryan Smith, and Chad Slade.

I haven’t followed Auburn recruiting all that closely for all that long. But still, when it comes to going from “completely off the radar” to “overwhelming fan favorite,” no one but no one has done it more quickly at Auburn, that I’ve seen, than Ladarious Phillips. When Signing Day dawned, no one had any idea who he was or that Chizik and Co. were even aware of his existence; by the time Signing Day was over, Auburn fans were giving him the full-on Beano Cook/Ron Powlus treatment. It’s a land-speed record for fan-favoritism I doubt I’ll ever seen broken.

Which is cool, because, dude, remember that day? When you had no idea who this cat was and you watched the video and it was the single smoothest song you’d ever seen a video scored to and you were all like Yeah, check out this big boy run, aw hell yeaaaaaah and you knew even though it was still, like, 9:17 it was going to be a good day? I don’t know how Phillips’s career is going to turn out, but he’s already given us that, and we’ll always have it. It’s a hell of a way to start.

BASICS: The AUfficial Signing Day bio sheet, shakin’ it down:

Ladarious Phillips
ATH, 6-1, 265
Roanoke, AL (Handley HS)

HIGH SCHOOL: Named 2009 Class 4A First Team All-State by the Alabama Sports Writers Association as a defensive lineman … Named to the 2009 Dandy Dozen by the Anniston Star … Four year starter played multiple positions … During his final three seasons, rushed for a total of 2,982 yards and 49 touchdowns … As a senior, rushed for 1,145 yards and 16 touchdowns on 141 carries while guiding his team to the state semifinals … Collected 59 tackles including 13 tackles for loss and eight sacks while forcing two fumbles … Won the shot put for class 4A at the 2009 ASHAA state track meet and finished second in 2008.

A few things:

1. That’s an average of 8.1 yards-per-carry as a senior. 8.1 yards. Whatever Phillips may become for Auburn’s offense, at Handley he was way, way more than a glorified battering ram, far more than just some short-yardage specialist.

2. Dude, first-team All-State at DT? 21 tackles behind the line? 59 total? That’s not anything to just brush off. Even if he sticks on offense, that he’s versatile enough to put up those kinds of numbers on both sides of the ball should tell you how versatile an athlete he is.

3. As should winning the state shotput title. If you’ve never watched shotput, it’s a lot more complicated than just “fat guy goes GRAAAAHHH”; it helps to be a fat guy who goes GRAAAAHHH, sure, but you need a lot of coordination and agility to really be good at it. Between his double-sided versatility and the shotput thing, safe to say Phillips has it.

4. But when he signed, even Auburn’s coaches weren’t sure how they’d put it to use; Phillips is the only signee out of 32 who even the AUfficial site listed as an athlete.

RECRUITNIK HOO-HA: We could have just about skipped this section, because the gurus barely knew there was such a thing as a Ladarious Phillips, even after Signing Day. Rivals didn’t really even bother evaluating him; they left him at two stars with a grade of 5.2. Scout gave him two stars, and, unsurprisingly, no ranking. (They couldn’t even bother to keep him separate from Auburn’s other LaDarius when he committed.) ESPN never did more than stick his name and photo on the website; that “40” grade is nothing but a placeholder and there’s no evaluation. Which should tell you how truly off-the-radar Phillips was: the only (freshman) recruits in Auburn’s 2008 and 2009 classes to not get a write-up from ESPN were Dax Dellenbach the long-snapper and Robert Cooper the planned grayshirt QB/TE. As far as the gurus go, Phillips was basically an “N/A.”

His offer sheet doesn’t quite square with that, though; if Rivals is to be believed, Duke, Troy, and Louisiana Tech had all offered, along with a nice smattering of I-AA programs.  Auburn’s landed three-stars before with equivalent (or even less) interest. But it’s fair to wonder how hard those D-I programs were pushing for Phillips, since no one disputes that until Auburn stepped up with their offer–at the last possible second–he was headed to Georgia Southern.

Still, you look at his accomplishments at Handley and the fact that several D-I programs took an interest–including quality ones at Duke and Troy–and it’s kind of ridiculous to think he ought to be getting the sort of ratings usually reserved for random special teams specialists.

LINKS OF POTENTIAL INTEREST: Once upon a time in junior high I spent all weekend watching VH1’s countdown of the top 200 music videos of all time*. Since “all time” at that point meant “up through 1991,” Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” landed in the very top spot. And I remember the (hopelessly whitebread, “adult contemporary”) host saying something to the effect of “No matter how many times you watch it, it always amazes you.”

All of which is to say that I feel the exact same way about this:

I always feel like I need a cigarette after watching that, even though I don’t smoke. Weird. As Matt Hinton wrote in naming Phillips the Dr. Saturday Recruit of the Year:

How did a 275-pound, two-star running back/defensive lineman who runs a 4.8 40-yard dash manage to wring a last-second offer to join a star-studded Auburn class that already included one five-star power back and ranks among the best incoming crops in school history? Because Ladarious Phillips hits the hole hard, baby.

I doubt any recruit, anywhere, has done more for their reputation via YouTube than Phillips. Anyway, remember that 1. you can see some defensive clips if you wait for the 8:15 mark or so 2. those are just his sophomore and junior highlights. I’m fairly sure these are from senior year …

… and what always strikes me watching both of the above clips is how solid Phillips’s balance is. The power’s there, but given his size and the competition, you’d expect it to be. That he seems so adept at taking blows to the feet, the ankles, and still keeping his (not insubstantial) weight underneath him and his  feet moving is what’s really impressive. He might almost even be “nimble.” Again: this dude is an athlete.

So, this being a Dr. Gustav-driven team, it’s not a surprise that he’s going to start out on offense:

Phillips’ size might make it difficult for him to be an every-down feature back, but [Handley head coach Mike] 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. [Kick!?!?–ed.] “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” …

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.

Erp. Well, nothing Yoxall and fall camp can’t straighten out, or come pretty close to straightening out. Still, gaining almost 30 pounds over the course of one offseason probably isn’t the best way to start your college career, especially when you’ve been specifically told to be “as fast as you can possibly be.”

More awesome profiling, this time from P-Marsh, available here:

When he leaves school, Phillips reports to his job delivering and moving furniture to help his disabled mother make ends meet. After that, he lifts weights or runs in preparation for the opportunity of his lifetime.

It’s that kind of dedication that led Phillips to get a long-awaited telephone call as he got ready for his final Handley football banquet on the night of Feb. 2, just 12 hours before signing day. He had a scholarship offer from Auburn.

“I’ve always known if you push yourself you can accomplish big things,” Phillips said. “My mom always told me to set my goals high and I could do anything.”

Handley coach Mike Battles says Phillips has willingly carried a heavy load at home while excelling as an athlete and a student.

“He’s a grown man,” Battles said. “He’s no kid. He’s been the man in his family for a long time. He’s a good student. There aren’t going to be any character flaws. He’s not going to be one way to your face and then be another way. What you see is what you are going to get.”

Battle keeps on ‘ravin and Phillips says more cool, humble things throughout the piece. Read it.

Signing Day photo at Handley High here, courtesy of the Randolph Leader. The paper also offers a useful summer update on both Phillips and Auburn women’s hoops signee Courtney Strain:

Recruited by Auburn assistant Phillip Lolley, Phillips looks to make an immediate impact in a fullback role this fall. That role will require Phillips to trim some weight and add a step to his already impressive speed.

“They sent me a workout plan that I’ve been doing,” Phillips said. “It was a lot of running and some light weight lifting. They plan on using me at fullback so they want to slim me up.”

Phillips said he is already aware of the rigorous workout schedule he will be on after reporting to campus.

“We’ll get up and lift every morning from 6:15 to 7:30, then class, then study hall,” Phillips said …

His assimilation into the college football lifestyle might be made a little easier because of some help from familiar Randolph County players, former Handley Tiger Joey Caldwell, who walked on at Auburn, and former Wadley Bulldog Terrell Zachery, who became one of Auburn’s most potent offensive weapons last season.

“Terrell’s been kind of letting me know how things work around there,” Phillips said.

Hey, just so long as he’s already on the Coach Yox plan.

More from the Anniston Star, this time focusing on Phillips’s pre-Signing Day options for both school and position. Did you know …

Even when Phillips talks of the most comfortable fit, one cannot assume he’ll opt for the schools allowing him to run the ball. While he only made the move to a full-time defender this past season, “playing defense was really natural … I liked it a lot.”

So … he made first-team All-State in his first season playing more than spot duty on defense. OK then.

Lastly, Phillips won the state shotput as a junior but finished second as a senior despite a better throw, behind a kid from UMS-Wright. Also, do spare a moment for the Georgia Southern fans who thought they had an impact recruit locked up only for one of the bigger fish to come snatch him away at the last second.

WHAT CONCLUSIONS WE CAN DRAW, IF ANY: You have to ask: why wasn’t Phillips a bigger deal? He’s huge, he’s agile, he’s fast, he’s versatile, he’s got the grades, he’s got a motor … why was Auburn the only major school even remotely interested, and even then, only as a fallback in the event Lattimore went elsewhere? Handley’s not Hoover, but it’s not a random 1A school stranded somewhere west of Tuscaloosa, either; they made the state semifinals last year. What are we missing?

I would say that it basically comes down to that “ATH” by his name on the AUfficial site. When even your own future coaches aren’t entirely sure where you’ll end up–even when they already know where they want their other “tweeners” like Dakota Mosley, Chris Davis, Trovon Reed, etc.–then you’ve got a problem. Nimble as he is, Phillips is just too big to be an every-down running back, especially if he’s going to struggle with his weight. Battle talked up his potential at linebacker, but that’s not happening. He didn’t have much experience on defense, and even if he did, he doesn’t have SEC-level height or speed at defensive end, but he also may not have the technique or raw strength to play defensive tackle. (I say “may” because I’m not ruling out Phillips adding a few pounds and playing DT by a long shot. His combination of size, power, and athleticism screams “interior lineman” every bit as loud as it does “short-yardage back.” I bet he could have been–or might still be–a total stud as a 3-4 end.)

So schools passed, because if you can’t see him being great somewhere, only OK anywhere, then he’s not worth it. But I think the one role it’s easy to see Phillips being great at at the SEC level is–has always been–as a short-yardage, third-down back. Give him just a sliver of daylight, and it’s so, so easy to see him getting you three yards. And whaddya know, Auburn just so happens to be a team that struggled like a patent-pending struggling machine last year when they had to have those three yards. Round peg, meet round hole.

Will Phillips ever be more than that? Not on offense, I don’t think. Maybe as a kind of blocking-only, traditional fullback-esque H-back, though even there Phillips might be on the tall side. But not at tailback, at least at Auburn. The Tiger fans–and I’ve seen a few–expecting him to get carries that aren’t of the get-us-three-yards variety are, I think, getting carried away. Our staff knows RBs, Lolley knew he was out there, and they still waited until the night before Signing Day, you know.

But who cares? So he’s a short-yardage specialist (and possibly a sleeper at a position, defensive tackle, where we could use a sleeper). When it’s the fourth quarter at Jordan-Hare, and it’s 4th down, a yard and a half to go, and you see Phillips hit the field, and you know he’s getting the ball, and the line is pumped, and the crowd is going somewhere between bananas and bonkers, and he surges forward for the first … are you going to be disappointed he’s not more than that? Of course not.

The only question for me is if that happens as soon as this season; the weight thing maybe throws it into a little bit of doubt. But I think he’d be OK doing that much even at 275, and that’s just 15 pounds away. He’ll get there. It’s going to be fun.

*Shut up. Though it’s kind of amusing for me to remember the network as it was then–basically, MTV for white people who felt threatened by the horrible specter of Ed Lover, the television equivalent of network fave Jon Secada–and contrast with the “Flavor of Love”-creating, lower-than-the-lowest-common-denominator-fest it is today.

Photo via. Like it tells you itself.

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