Adrian Phillips had a rough junior season. One that he would probably rather forget.
Perhaps the poster child for the maligned Texas Longhorns secondary that often gave up yards in big chunks because of missed tackles, the Garland product needed a resurgent spring both to secure a starting spot that could have ended up for grabs had he failed to meet the challenge and to prove that he had put 2012 behind him.
It appears that Phillips rose to that challenge.
During the Orange-White game on Saturday, Phillips was the leading tackler for the 'Horns, making seven total stops, including five of the solo variety, exactly the type of plays that he struggled mightily to make last season.
Two plays stood out as particularly notable.
The first was one of the biggest hits of the game, as Phillips flew in from his safety position to stop Malcolm Brown behind the line of scrimmage on a screen pass that he clearly recognized early, showing a suddenness that was oddly absent last season.
On the second, it was 3rd and goal from the Texas 8, the play in which early enrollee quarterback Tyrone Swoopes escaped attempted tackles from two Texas starting linebackers, took the edge, and looked ready to plough his way into the end zone for a truly special moment.
Phillips denied Swoopes, stuffing him at the 2 yardline, giving little to no ground to the 250-pound quarterback just one play after the one-time five-star prospect had lowered his shoulder and knocked over fellow safety Josh Turner, one of several acts of physical dominance by Swoopes on the evening.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz spoke after the scrimmage of a desire to see his group "play fast, play tough, and play physical." In his estimation, the mission was accomplished, and Phillips was a part of it, working to answer questions about his toughness and tackling ability by demonstrating both when given the opportunity.
It wasn't the first time that Phillips put his recovered physicality on display either -- head coach Mack Brown commended it following the first scrimmage of the spring. The day before, Diaz had also praised his senior safety for other reasons:
The first thing that stands out is Adrian Phillips is playing at a different level. What you are seeing with him is you are seeing the senior-year urgency. That's been important because somebody had to take the leadership void that [Kenny] Vaccaro left back there. You see it in his play, the way he works, in the weight room - everything he has done since we got back in January has been at full speed and a high level. That's been very encouraging.
That comment offered when it appears that Diaz was asked a general question about the secondary, not Phillips specifically.
Flash back to last fall. Phillips may have been coming off of offseason shoulder surgery that kept him out of spring practice, but that didn't dampen expectations. Defensive backs coach Duane Akina was outspoken in his praise of Phillips, noting that some players struggle with the mental or physical aspects of the game, but that his safety was one of the rare few who can both think the game and make plays out on the field with his athleticism, all while possessing the capability of playing every position in the secondary.
Hence the title of an equally glowing post calling Philips the Swiss Army Knife of the Texas secondary.
Looking back on it, when Brown was asked at the start of the spring about improving the team's tackling, he went into some depth about the impact the offseason shoulder surgery had on Phillips:
A young man like Adrian Phillips, I don't think we were fair to him publicly because he missed spring practice. He had a shoulder operation, and they would not let him tackle all fall and because he had been a good player for us, we threw him out there and said "Go." And then wondered why he struggled some early. In retrospect, we probably should have tried to get somebody more ready and let him ease back in instead of jump back in with the speed in this league.
The fact that Phillips was able to start reversing the narrative of his career trajectory this spring merely proves how important spring practice can be. Given that he wasn't able to work much in fall camp and Phillips hadn't been in live tackling situations for nine months when he took the field against Wyoming in 2012.
This apparent turnaround though? It actually started last fall -- from the Iowa State game until the end of the season, Phillips made seven of his nine open-field tackling opportunities, a significant improvement over the way that he began the campaign, when missed tackles deep in the Texas backfield seemingly resulted in big plays in every game.
The image of Oklahoma fullback Trey Millard vaulting over Mykkele Thompson and breaking through a weak effort by Phillips was an enduring one. One that defined not only another Red River Beatdown by the rival Sooners, but also a Texas program that seemed rather soft and malleable at times.
Having spent some time at nickelback and safety this spring, Phillips has a chance to play as many as three positions for the 'Horns in the fall and will be instrumental in helping to replace Kenny Vaccaro, though it's likely that Quandre Diggs will spend more time at the nickel position that Vaccaro essentially vacated.
With relative inexperience at the other safety position as Mykkele Thompson tries to overcome questions about his own physicality, tackling ability, and general willingness to lay the wood to opponents, Phillips will be the key piece in the last line of Longhorn defense as the coaches say the right things about him and he did the right things on the field, both in the open practices and in the spring game.
So there's this one last chance for Phillips to have that breakout season.
Better late than never. And never is what Phillips is looking at if it doesn't happen this fall.