How LSU linebacker Jacob Phillips found his voice within the defense: ‘You’ve got to scream’

3 months ago The Advocate 0

Jacob Phillips felt a twinge of disappointment after LSU completed its undefeated regular season.

The Tigers had beaten Texas A&M 50-7, played their most complete game of the year and taken revenge against the Aggies. But the junior linebacker produced his lowest statistical output since becoming a starter.

Phillips made one tackle against Texas A&M, leaving him at 95 as the Tigers prepare for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game against No. 4 Georgia at 3 p.m. Saturday. Phillips wanted to reach 100 tackles.

Though Phillips’ most recent game fell short of his personal goal, he has been a reliable inside linebacker this season. Helping fill the void left by All-American and Butkus Award winner Devin White, Phillips ranks fifth in the conference in tackles.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart thought the linebackers were the most improved group on LSU’s defense this season, and Phillips has become one of the Tigers’ most important players — not only for his talent, but for his experience and knowledge of the playbook.

“Jacob is one of the hardest working guys here,” junior safety JaCoby Stevens said. “He works on the details. He works on the little things. I think that’s what’s separating him from all the other people.”

Phillips started alongside White last season, but White’s presence dwarfed a productive sophomore year by Phillips. Despite missing one game and playing half the season with a torn labrum, Phillips recorded 83 tackles. He also didn’t speak much.

White barked out defensive calls, positioning his teammates on the field. Phillips worked in relative silence. White was the leader of the team, and Phillips’ role didn’t require using his voice.

“We couldn’t get Jacob to even make a call,” senior defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence said. “Devin was always like, ‘Jacob, you’ve got to speak up. You’ve got to scream.’ ”

When White departed for the NFL after his junior season, he left his role as the voice of LSU’s defense behind him. The Tigers moved Michael Divinity to inside linebacker, expecting the senior to replace White’s vocal leadership. But Divinity has missed most of LSU’s games and left the team for two weeks. He has supported his teammates from the sideline during games.

After sitting out spring practice while he recovered from surgery on his labrum, Phillips entered the season as LSU’s most experienced inside linebacker. He improved his tackling, deepened his understanding of the defense and learned how to position his teammates. He wanted to become a leader.

“He approached it head-on,” said Phillips’ mother, Tami. “He was very excited about being a leader on the team and taking the baton from Devin and continuing the goal toward a national championship. That’s always been the goal.”

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Throughout the season, Phillips’ teammates have noticed his improved ability to make defensive calls. He and inside linebacker Patrick Queen have become two of the most vocal players on the defense, Lawrence said, and though Phillips’ teammates imitate him in almost a restrained whisper, his style has worked.

“He has a funny voice,” Lawrence said. “It’s kind of high-pitched. But he gets (the plays) to us, and he does a great job of doing it.”

Phillips said he feels more confident now than ever before in his career. He has adjusted his pre-snap stance, placing his feet closer together so he can change quickly direction, but he still attacks the line of scrimmage, which removes double-teams from LSU’s defensive linemen. He has also relayed calls, putting his teammates in their proper positions.

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Now approaching the SEC Championship for the first time in his career, Phillips and the rest of LSU’s defense faces an offense predicated on running the football.

The Bulldogs, led by junior running back D’Andre Swift, average 200 yards rushing per game. They will try to control the line of scrimmage with their massive offensive line, and in response, Phillips will need to have his defense in the right place. He feels comfortable doing it.

“He’s the type of guy who does his talking with his play and how he hits people,” senior defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko said. “But that was the old Jacob. The new Jacob knows he can’t just line up and try to hit people.

“He’s right behind us. He has to get us lined up. He has to echo calls and try to get us in better positions to make plays on the field. That’s what he’s done for us this year.”