Mike Phillips has watched teammates return from an injury as half the player they were before, and always wondered if they had lost their desire to play football.
It wasn’t until the Pitt strong safety suffered a serious injury himself, then attempted a comeback of his own that he finally understood the challenge.
“When it happened to me, I figured I’d play the same way I did before I broke my ankle,” Phillips said. “What I didn’t consider was how hard it would be to do the basic things like make a tackle. It was hard for me to stop and start. I would just keep going past the play. People probably looked at me and said, ‘What’s wrong with him?’”
A gruesome broken right ankle against Nebraska ended his 2005 season, but Phillips surprised many by returning in time for training camp last August. He was poised to regain his starting spot before injuring his left ankle in the final week of practice. That injury bothered him all season.
“I think it was just because I was over-compensating on my right side by doing more on my left,” Phillips said. “I never had that burst that I could come out of my breaks. I saw plays happening and came out of my stance, but I did not have the explosion to get there. When you can’t do anything physically about it, it really frustrated me.”
Now, Phillips claims to be in pre-Nebraska form. More importantly, his coaches and teammates believe the same. If that’s the case, Phillips could be a real difference maker at a position that was a weakness of the defense last year.
With Elijah Fields suspended for the season, it might be necessary. Phillips is expected to start alongside Eric Thatcher, and the duo should provide some veteran leadership and necessary toughness to the secondary.
As disappointing as Phillips was last season – and he admits as much – he has enjoyed a stellar career at Pitt. Phillips has played every position in the defensive backfield, starting seven games at cornerback as a redshirt freshman before moving to free safety as a sophomore, where he started the first three games before the injury.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound fifth-year senior believes he is faster and stronger than before, noting that he can stop and plant without fear and has regained his leaping ability.
“I can say I’m fully back,” Phillips said. “Last year, I believed I was healthy but I really wasn’t. Your mind tells you that you’re OK. I see a difference in how I played last year. I let my team down. That wasn’t the Mike Phillips we know last year.”
Those athletic traits were missing from Phillips last season. He can recall several plays he would have made if healthy: a pass play against Connecticut, a diving tackle against South Florida and, of course, Ray Rice’s 64-yard run up the middle that sealed the loss to Rutgers.
“Coach Rhoads would say, ‘The old Mike would have made that play,’” Phillips said. “When he broke to the other side, I could have made that play now. He would have gained 4 or 5 yards. The old me wouldn’t have had to dive.”
Pitt is counting on the new and improved Mike Phillips to stay healthy, and to make those plays this season.