Safety still a backup, still confident
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
Jermaine Phillips' improvement impresses coaches, but not quite enough to unseat Dwight Smith.
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2003
|[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Safety Jermaine Phillips, a second-year pro from Georgia, is a key member of the Bucs special teams and is competing with Dwight Smith for playing time in the secondary.
LAKE BUENA VISTA - With the departure of Dexter Jackson for Arizona, second-year player Jermaine Phillips was first on the Bucs depth chart at free safety.
Technically, he entered the offseason looking squarely at an opportunity to start on opening day.
Then came the monkey wrench.
The Bucs saw cornerback Dwight Smith's performance late in the season and postseason and decided his on-the-ball skills were strong enough to convert him to safety and make him a starter.
Phillips, 24, was back to the bench, disappointed but not bitter.
"There are a lot of people who would kill to be in my situation," Phillips said. "So I'm just going to go out there and compete and as long as I'm showing up on film, then I'll let the coaches make the decisions they have to make in terms of what's best for the defense. Some days are better than others, but I want to max out and if I do that, then I'm going to be satisfied with where I am as a safety."
Defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said Phillips handled the news he wasn't going to start the way the team had hoped.
"He has the mind-set of a champion," Tomlin said. "He's responding the way we expect him to respond. The game is within. It's about him playing his A game. When you start looking around at other teammates, you're not going to max out. He's focused on his game and is not worrying about who the competition is."
Though conceding nothing, Phillips said the competition with Smith will benefit the team.
"That's what Dwight and I are doing right now," Phillips said. "We're competing and trying to help each other out to make this defense No. 1 again."
At 6 feet 1, 215 pounds, Phillips can help if he and other second-year players elevate their games.
"It is what we ask," Tomlin said. "We ask for a big jump from the first to the second year. He gave us some quality work last year and showed some maturity, and we expect him to take the next step and he's putting himself in a position to do that."
Phillips said he's ready for the challenge.
"I do realize that," Phillips said. "I was talking to (cornerback) Tim (Wansley) the other day and we were talking about coming into camp this year and how we were so much more relaxed. With that in mind, the expectations have to be set higher because you're not a rookie any longer. We know what to expect. We're not blind to the NFL and we should know how to better ourselves."
Phillips spent most of last season contributing on special teams and saw limited action in the playoffs. He showed the coaching staff enough to know he'll be ready if Smith can't go.
"The thing that jumps out at you right now is that he's covering a lot of grass," Tomlin said. "That's what you have to do as a free safety, and he's covering a lot of grass. But to me, he's a complete player. He'll strike you."
The fifth-round pick out of Georgia is backing up Smith at free safety and occasionally moving to strong safety. He also remains a critical part of the kickoff and punt return teams.
"I think I still have a long way to go," he said. "I'm looking at John Lynch and trying to be like him, have his smarts, his knowledge of the game. I think I have come a ways, but I have a long way to go."
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