Dig into LSU’s linebacker history and you’ll find a surprisingly shallow pool. When Poseur and I dug into the ATVS All-Time Team at linebacker, the old hands took the trophy with ease. Think about LSU’s best defenses since 2000. Who were the LB standouts on those teams? Sure, Bradie James came and went in that timeframe. But the 2003 defense featured guys like Lionel Turner and Eric Alexander. 2007’s strong group had Ali Highsmith, who doesn’t rank in the top 10 in a single tackles statistic for LSU. In 2011, the only weak link of the entire unit was a linebacker core that rotated young Kevin Minter with safety convert Karnell Hatcher. The best player in that group was... Ryan Baker...
That’s not to say there’s been no positives. Minter blossomed in 2013 to a full-blown stud. Kelvin Sheppard quietly crept his way into LSU’s top 10 tackle leaders. James and Faulk were two-man wrecking machines. Recently, Debo and Duke Riley have turned in stellar senior campaigns turning themselves from undrafted free agents to top round draft picks. Kendall Beckwith played excellently once shifted fully to middle linebacker duties.
But the history is spotty. And often concentrated. Mike Anderson and Warren Capone dominated the early 70s. Al Richardson, Lawrence Williams and Lyman White all played together and wound up as three of LSU’s top six tacklers of all-time. Michael Brooks had Ron Sancho. The aforementioned duo of James and Faulk initiate the dawn of a new era of LSU football, and the next best pair since them has probably been Kelvin Sheppard and Perry Riley. There are varying levels of quality in there, but usually every alpha dawg had his henchman and they were all separated by about a decade.
Which is truly surprising in a state that churns out an outrageous number of 6’0”-6’5”, 200-250 pound athletes on a yearly basis. Lots of those kids play RB sure, but plenty could find success on defense and yet seemingly never do. The trend seems to be turning a corner, as we see a talented two-way player like Devin White, who was adamant about carrying the football as a recruit, quickly see his path to the next level is on the defensive side of the ball.
Still there’s a limited number of top-tier linebackers produced in state on a yearly basis, which drives LSU into Texas and the Southeast to find the players to build their core. This year it was Tennessee and Georgia. It’s not always been an area of success, but under Dave Aranda the tide is beginning to turn.
No player is more emblematic of that transition than Nashville, Tennessee native Jacob Phillips.
The Back of the Card
110 - 101 = Franchise Player. One of the best players to come along in years, if not decades. Odds of having a player in this category every year is slim. This prospect has "can’t miss" talent.
100 - 98 = Five-star prospect. One of the top 30 players in the nation. This player has excellent pro-potential and should emerge as one of the best in the country before the end of his career. There will be 32 prospects ranked in this range in every football class to mirror the first round of the NFL Draft.
97 - 90 = Four-star prospect. One of the top 300 players in the nation. This prospect will be an impact-player for his college team. He is an All-American candidate who is projected to play professionally.
89 - 80 = Three-star prospect. One of the top 10% players in the nation. This player will develop into a reliable starter for his college team and is among the best players in his region of the country. Many three-stars have significant pro potential.
79 - below = Two-star prospect. This player makes up the bulk of Division I rosters. He may have little pro-potential, but is likely to become a role player for his respective school.
247 Composite Ranking: ****
247 Composite Rating: .9719
Jacob Phillips is a man. Listed officially at 6’3”, 237 pounds, he looks every bit of it here:
That’s a full-grown man. That is an adult human body. Phillips isn’t one that needs to grow into his position. He did that two years ago.
His 247 composite rating illustrates his fringe 5-star status (Rivals ranked him a 5-star) and he finished ranked as the No. 1 ILB in the country. Phillips was a U.S. Army All-American bowl participant. During the game he recorded four tackles, mostly notably tackling Alabama running back commit Najee Harris for a loss. Phillips excelled all throughout AA week, earning himself a nice bump in all final recruiting rankings.
Phillips committed to Oklahoma in October of his senior season, after taking all five of his official visits, but kept his recruitment open. In late January he took a somewhat surprising unofficial visit to LSU, which sealed the surging opinion that he would be flipping to the Tigers late in the process. A week later, he flipped from the Sooners to the Tigers. This, of course, brought about your garden variety crootin’ rumors, of which I can only say, play the game better.
On the Field
Already There: Size, Range/Athleticism, Tackling, Smarts, Instincts, Downhill Skills, Pass Defense
Working on It: Sorting Through Trash, Taking on Blocks
Doesn’t Have It: Nothing
Size: As mentioned above, he’s got an excellent frame for an inside linebacker at 6’3” with long arms. That will allow some versatility that other, shorter players may not benefit. 237 isn’t a bad weight, but I’m guessing he can still add another 10 pounds of muscle without sacrificing his athletic ability.
Range/Athleticism: Sideline-to-sideline LBs are no longer a luxury. Today’s spread offenses demand players that can run and Phillips can really cover the field horizontally. Look at 1:10 for a great example of him effortlessly covering about 15 yards for a TFL. 1:58, he initially takes a bad angle, but is able to recover and use his speed and athleticism to make a play on the ball. 2:04 is another example showing the ground he can cover in a hurry. 3:47 is truly great because the QB thinks he’s gonna get outside the pocket and do something and all the sudden Phillips swallows whole chunks of earth at light speed and forces a TFL for a couple yards loss.
Tackling: One thing I like about Phillips is he’s a pretty flush hitter. He’s not a killshot artist. He drops his hips and explodes up through contact. 2:16 is about as picture perfect as you could imagine, with the exception that he may have lowered his head, which is a big no no (the angle doesn’t allow clear line of sight). 2:48 you can see the kid knows how to hit and wrap up. He’s a drive and wrap tackler and I love seeing that in my ILBs. See 3:06 as well.
Smarts: Your inside backers typically captain the defense and will make calls for shifts and adjustments up front. Beckwith leaned into this role and while it’s early to demand that of Phillips as a freshman you can see on tape it’s something he’s experienced and comfortable with in the past. Through his tape, Phillips can be seen pointing and calling out the opposition, aligning his teammates, taking signals from the sidelines and so forth.
Instincts: The first play on the reel is a play-action fake where they are trying to suck the linebackers down and drop a quick pass over them up the seam. Phillips takes one false step, but quickly reads the eyes of the QB, alters his path backward and gets in the line of the pass for an interception. He’s got a good overall sense of where the ball is and where the ball is going.
Downhill Skills: When I talk about a player getting downhill, I mean coming on a direct line to the ball carrier. Believe it or not, this comes much more naturally to some than others. Some linebackers are what I’d call chase players, who have exceptional athletic talent but are more likely to run a play down from the backside. Some guys can only play downhill and don’t exhibit any sideline-to-sideline ability.
Dave Aranda mentioned his core of LBs this season will give him more options. He named Phillips specifically, as a player that can rush and drop, so Aranda sees that potential as a downhill attacker. Even if not used as a pass rusher, I love the way Phillips attacks the ball carrier. Check 4:05 and you see he knows what he sees, attacks the play and makes a TFL. That’s downhill skill.
Pass Defense: Aranda saying he can rush AND drop is a major compliment to his overall skillset and one of the things that I believe will make him a truly special player. He can do it all. You have the early couple of picks that show a pretty good feel for interior pass defense, something not uncommon for many athletic linebackers this generation. But at 4:51 I’m blown away. Initially he looks confused, possibly even tries to call a timeout before the snap. But it’s the way he drops like a Cover 2 safety that has me salivating at a Tyrann Mathieu type threat in a 6’3”, 250 pound frame.
Working On It
Sorting Through Trash: Not something a lot of HS ballplayers are demanded to come up against, Phillips will have to learn how to work through the muck of bodies that often crowd the middle of the field on the next two levels. He will need to develop his hand usage...
Taking on Blocks: Related, but not the same as the above, Phillips doesn’t have clips showing him engaging with and coming off of a lineman. In HS, he was able to easily run around these guys, OR develop a full head of steam before barreling into them. He’s an aggressive player, so the contact aspect shouldn’t be an issue, but again, learning how to use his hands to keep those guys off him, so that he can make plays, will be a major transition piece for his early playing time. At 4:16 you see him use his hands to literally throw the center back three yards, though it’s not quite a fair comp as the lineman had already locked up with the defensive line and Phillips basically blindsides him.
Poseur’s 80s Movie Comparison
All of this talk of alpha dogs and henchmen means its time to bust out the most 80s of all movie genres: the buddy cop movie. As a genre, the buddy cop movie did not even really exist until the 1980s (you could make a weak case for The French Connection) except on TV (Starksy & Hutch, Dragnet).
That’s a lot like star inside linebackers. LSU hasn’t run a 3-4 in ages, so we haven’t had a star inside linebacker almost by design. Jacob Phillips changes that, and completely changes the game for the LSU defense, much like our movie:
The first buddy cop movie is arguably the best one ever made. I’ll entertain arguments on behalf of Tango & Cash, but this was the movie that set the mold. It also made a movie star out of Eddie Murphy. He went from the star of a late night TV show to the most bankable movie star in the world. That’s what Phillips wants to do. Make the leap from vaunted high school prospect to certified star. All he’s got to do is outwit James Remar and fight Nick Nolte.
What the Future Holds
Bright and shiny things. Philips was arguably the most important recruit in the 2017 signing class, if not the best overall. LSU’s linebacker depth chart runs long on BUCK and F LB types, but lacked at the Rover and Mack roles. Devin White was a shoe-in, but beyond him there were major question marks prior to signing day and spring ball. Even if Donnie Alexander filled the role for a year, there was no appreciable depth beyond those two for even needed backups, much less the future.
LSU needed an impact inside linebacker that would be ready to play vs. BYU and they definitely got one in Phillips. When I see a prospect like Phillips, I see a very high floor and an imperceptible ceiling. Phillips has all those dreamy attributes of size and athleticism, but he flashes it on the field and not just by running down backs seven yards down field. He’s got tremendous football instincts. It’s clear he’s a student of the game and that’s a key element of success for a player who will someday be leading the LSU defense.
It’s going to be tremendously difficult to keep Phillips off the field in 2017. Donnie Alexander will try to do his best Debo and Duke impersonation, but those guys didn’t have any player of this caliber scratching at their heels. It’s quite possible Phillips is simply too good to keep out of the starting lineup by midseason, or earlier. Big, fast guys that show instincts play. Just ask Devin White.
The world is really Phillips’ to take. Jacob Phillips has Luke Kuechly-type skills. I don’t say that lightly. He has every down, do-it-all ability. He’s the modern linebacker prototype. This kid has the goods. He’s going to be a special player.
High End: All-American, Top NFL Draft Pick
Low End: Multi-year starter, NFL Draft Pick
Realistic: All-Conference Player that makes a dent in LSU record books