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Q&A with Hustle Belt: Diving into Darius Phillips’ unreal 14 touchdowns at Western Michigan

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The Bengals’ fifth round pick is a playmaker. SB Nation’s MAC blog, Hustle Belt, shares what Cincinnati fans need-to-know about rookie CB Darius Phillips.

Western Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Today, we’re joined by Steve Helwick who is a writer at Hustle Belt, SB Nation’s MAC blog! Helwick is a big fan of the Bengals’ fifth round pick, Darius Phillips, who joins the team after three impressive seasons of play at Western Michigan.

In his time in college, Phillips accounted for 127 tackles (13 for loss), 2 sacks, 12 interceptions (5 of which went for touchdowns), 35 passes defensed, 3 fumble recoveries (1 of which went for a touchdown) and 4 forced fumbles.

Simply put, this guy is a playmaker. When you take into consideration his six special teams touchdowns — five via kick return and one via punt return — it’s clear to see he’s a record breaker.

He ranked #2 in the MAC in punt return yards in both 2016 and 2017, as well as ranking #2 in yards per return. He also ranked first in punt return touchdowns in the NCAA in 2016 and first in the MAC in kickoff return yards in both 2014 and 2016. In 2015, he ranked ninth in the NCAA in kickoff return yards. Honestly, the list goes on and on regarding his special teams accomplishments. And, on defense his ability to turn the ball over can’t go unnoticed either. He ranks first in the MAC all-time in career interceptions returned for touchdowns and fifth in the NCAA in that same category.

In case you lost track, that’s 14 total touchdowns scored by a college cornerback.

Ok, enough ranting about his playmaking ability. Let’s hear from Steve to learn more about Phillips’ college career.

Rebecca Toback: What do you think about the Bengals’ addition of Darius Phillips in Round 5 of the draft?

Steve Helwick: This is an excellent pick for the Bengals in the fifth round. Darius Phillips could receive immediate playing time in Cincinnati as he is arguably the most electric return specialist in the draft. Cincinnati was a middle-of-the-road team in terms of kick return and punt return average, so selecting the two-time MAC Special Teams Player of the Year should be a great boost to the return game.

In terms of defense, his ability to jump routes and corral interceptions is outstanding. Phillips intercepted 12 passes in his three years playing cornerback at Western Michigan, while the Bengals tied for second last in the league in 2017 in number of turnovers forced. He’ll likely back up cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and William Jackson III in his rookie year. But if he impresses in training camp, Phillips could see valuable time in dime formations or other lineups that require additional slot cornerbacks. For a fifth round pick, this should be a steal for Cincinnati, a team that could utilize him in numerous ways immediately.

RT: What was Phillips known for during his time at Western Michigan from an off-the-field perspective?

SH: Phillips was known for being a leader on the Western Michigan team. On-the-field, he’s more of a serious, determined player. But off-the-field, he is more lighthearted and has a charismatic personality. There’s a famous photo from the Broncos’ 2016 MAC Championship win over Ohio where Phillips performs a backflip at midfield following the victory. His positive personality also showed when he directed the band on the field after a home victory over Idaho in 2017.

RT: What do you see as some of his strengths?

SH: Phillips’ greatest asset is his speed. He ran a 4.39-second 40 at Western Michigan’s Pro Day, although that number slipped to 4.54 at the combine. Make no mistake though, he can play against top-notch competition. In the first two games of 2017 — USC and Michigan State — Phillips seemed to be the marquee athlete in both contests. In those games alone, he ran back two kick returns for touchdowns and scored defensively after stripping a ball carrier. As a cornerback, Phillips’ man coverage skills are strong, he can adroitly time routes, and he experiences no trouble keeping up with the most agile receivers.

RT: How about any weaknesses?

SH: The primary reason such a talented ball hawk and speedy corner slipped to the fifth round is his size. Phillips is only 5’10” and 193 pounds. Also, the ability to make open field tackles is not one of Phillips’ fortes. Battling one-on-one against taller, stronger receivers such as the Mike Evans’ and Allen Robinsons of the league could be an additional struggle for the undersized corner. But what he lacks in size, he definitely makes up for it in talent.

RT: Did he have any major injuries/injuries of note while in college?

SH: Phillips’ availability was nearly flawless in college. From 2014-17, Western Michigan played 52 games. Phillips participated in 51, missing one game against Virginia Tech as a redshirt freshman wide receiver. However, he sprained his ankle at a Senior Bowl practice in January and watched his NFL Combine numbers drop as a result. The injury, which sidelined him for the Senior Bowl, contributed to him sliding down to the fifth round.

RT: Was he a leader on the defense?

SH: Phillips was definitely a leader on the Western Michigan defense. He was the most talented player on that side of the ball during the Broncos’ 13-1 MAC champion season. Western Michigan’s defense, which made key stops in the MAC Championship Game to secure a Cotton Bowl bid, held opponents to 21 points and under on eight occasions in 2016. That specific defense ranked 25th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game. However, the unit slightly regressed in Phillips’ senior year after a departure of several key defenders and head coach P.J. Fleck.

RT: Anything else Bengals fans should know?

SH: One of the most unique things about Darius Phillips is that he holds several NCAA records. Phillips ranks first in college football history with 12 non-offensive touchdowns. He scored 14 times in his career by receiving and returning kicks, punts, interceptions, and fumbles to the end zone. His 263 interception return yards were second to none in the 2016 college football campaign. Phillips’ five pick sixes tie a college football record with several other defenders — among them is former Bengals cornerback Deltha O’Neal.

In other words, once the pigskin lands in Phillips’ hands, he usually carries it a great distance.