If you watched any Western Michigan football games for the past few years, you may have noticed a cornerback who always seemed to have his hands on the ball. That would be Darius Phillips, who the Bengals selected in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft. The Bengals drafted Phillips after he cemented his name into a variety of record books at the NCAA level. Now, the Detroit native is ready to bring his playmaking ability to the Bengals.
“I would say I’d like to come out and be one of the best rookies this year and go out and try to showcase my talents,” Phillips said of his rookie year goals in an exclusive interview with Cincy Jungle.
When showcasing his talents in college, Phillips ranked second in punt return yards and yards per punt return in the MAC in each of the last two years and ranked first in kickoff return yards in the MAC in 2014 and 2016. He holds the record for most kickoff return yards in MAC history and has the most kickoff return touchdowns in MAC history. On top of all that, he ranked in the top seven for interceptions in the MAC in each of the last three years. He also ranks first in interceptions returned for touchdowns in MAC history and that’s not all. The list of his records and accomplishments is extensive.
Phillips scored 14 touchdowns during his college career. That type of number would be impressive for an offensive player, but for a defensive player it’s somewhat mind blowing. With that said, it won’t be too surprising to find out that Phillips actually started out at WMU as a wide receiver in 2014. That year, he had 32 catches for 479 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns. He also tacked on a kick return touchdown in his freshman year.
“I think switching from wide receiver to cornerback helped me a lot with my ability to adjust to the ball and ball skills and the things I can do once I get the balls in my hand,” he said. “Whether it’s an interception or on special teams, it’s definitely helped with my ball skills.”
Phillips credits his vision and trust for his special teams success, which included 3,193 kick return yards (an average of 24.6 yards per return), five kick return touchdowns, 327 punt return yards (an average of 10.2 yard per return) and 1 punt return touchdown in four years of college.
When Phillips got the call that he was drafted by the Bengals he was at his house with family and friends, all watching on TV. But when the call came from Marvin Lewis, he was actually in the basement of his house without his family, so they found out just by watching it on TV.
“We were all excited, there was a lot of screaming and shouting and hugging,” Phillips said. “It just felt unreal. It was a moment I had been waiting for all my life. It was just exciting and I’m blessed to have the opportunity.”
Phillips met with the Bengals informally at the combine and a special teams coach worked him out at his pro day, too. That aside, he didn’t have any formal meetings with the team prior to the draft, so it was a surprise when the Bengals called to select him. On top of that, rookie minicamp was Phillips’ first time visiting Cincinnati.
If you’ve never seen Phillips play, which is likely the case for many Bengals fans who are anxious to see him suit up in stripes, he explained his style of play in fairly simple terms.
“Hardworking on every play. A game-changer who can come in and make a play whether on defense or special teams. Special teams is really what I’ve been able to do to change a game with the ball in my hand,” he said. “Whenever I touch the ball I take pride in trying to score and put the offense in a great position to score.”
A game-changer on special teams is something that Adam Jones was for the Bengals for years. But, the team decided not to pick up the option on his contract this offseason and Jones is currently a free agent. When the team drafted Phillips along with Illinois State cornerback Davontae Harris this year, it pretty much signaled the official end of Jones’ time in Cincinnati. Now, the team is hoping that William Jackson III steps into not only a starting role, but becomes a star player, which he did toward the end of 2017 when Jones was injured. And as for the special teams ability that Jones brought to Cincinnati, that should be Phillips’ role moving forward.
“Bengals fans are getting a hard worker,” Phillips said. “A player who is going to give it his all and change the game in every aspect that I can.”