The Stanford defense has certainly always emphasized its “next man up” philosophy. But what happens when you run out of next men up?
It’s a question that no football team wants to answer — the lack of able bodies likely implies heavy injury attrition, after all — and a question that Stanford had likely never envisioned it would need to answer, with its sparkling injury record and effective strength and conditioning program.
But after a season-ending injury to junior Aziz Shittu and a knee injury to fifth-year senior David Parry obliterated the Cardinal’s depth at the crucial nose tackle position, Stanford had to dig deep to plug the hole. That’s where Harrison Phillips enters the story.
Phillips wasn’t supposed to play this role. Not this soon, anyway. He was recruited and signed as a defensive end, not as a tackle, and the three-star recruit out of Omaha, Nebraska is listed at 255 pounds on Stanford’s official roster — 60 to 70 pounds short of your run-of-the-mill nose tackle. And with Parry and Shittu primed to man the two-deep at the position at the end of fall practices, Phillips had all but accepted the fact that he wouldn’t be seeing significant playing time this season.
“I’ve been preparing since before I even signed to come in and try to play [immediately],” Phillips said. “That’s everyone’s dream — to come in and play as a true freshman. After the first few weeks that went by, I knew that dream was probably demolished.”
But when Shittu suffered a practice injury that would sideline him for the remainder of what looked to be a promising season in the week leading up to the Arizona State game, everything changed.
“Coach Shaw gave me a phone call when Aziz [Shittu] went down and he said, ‘We’re looking for the fourth guy to come play, and we think it’s you,’” Phillips said.
In a situation in which the team was down to its third- and fourth-string players to plug the gap, defensive line coach Randy Hart emphasized that injury prevention was one of the major factors in his decision.
“As much as anything, it’s an avoidance of putting a young man in a situation where he can get hurt and where he’s physically strong enough to take on the older players,” Hart said. “And Harrison came in actually a little stronger on the quantitative side, so he wound up being the guy.”
As “the guy,” Phillips wasn’t going to be asked to do too much — he was only expecting to see the field “maybe 5-10 plays a game” behind Parry, who had been a workhorse at the position over the last two seasons and would usually catch a rest during nickel packages anyway.
But against the fast-paced tempo of Arizona State’s offense, Phillips got a lot more than he had bargained for in the first action of his collegiate career; due to the inability of the offense to hold the ball, what was supposed to have been 5-10 plays per game had turned into 20 plays by the half. And what’s worse, Parry had hurt his knee, making Phillips “the guy” for real this time.
Against all odds, the 255-pound Phillips had become the Cardinal’s starter at nose tackle. And as ready as he thought he was and hoped he’d be, the bigger, faster college game was threatening to eat him up.
“It was a little bit [overwhelming],” Phillips said. “I didn’t know what to really expect. It was a lot faster than anything I had ever played…It was kind of a rude awakening.”
“I got my opportunity and I had been preparing the whole time, but sometimes it’s just tough to be thrown in there against these 325-pound guys at 18 years old.”
David Parry knew the importance of mentorship on a college football team — he had been mentored himself by Terrence Stephens, his predecessor at nose back in the day — and with a true freshman trying to navigate the unforgiving tides of a season in the Pac-12 at one of the most physically demanding positions on the field, that became more important than ever.
Was the injury frustrating? Of course; any time Parry missed during his final season on the team is time he would never get back. But while working with furious urgency to get back on the field, he was making the most of the impact he could have from the sidelines by standing by Phillips’ side through every step of the process.
“He understands that he couldn’t be out there playing, so the next best thing is to have a hand at who is playing,” Hart said. “So the fact that he helped with the assignments and helped with the attitude, the mental preparation and what had to get done, it worked out for the good.”
“Whether I’m in meetings or I’m standing out here, I’m always watching [Phillips],” Parry said. “When I see anything that needs to be corrected or anything that I think he can do better, I let him know how, in fact, he can do that.”
For his part, the mentorship was critical to Phillips because in addition to the fact that he was too undersized to start at the position, he was also in over his head in terms of the oft-overlooked — but no less important — technique required.
“I’m undersized to start, but I’m very raw,” Phillips said. “I don’t have any of the right technique. I just go in there and fight as hard as I can, give as much heart as I can. Motor to the football, I guess.”
And never was the veteran presence more reassuring for Phillips than on the nights before games, when he and Parry were roommates at the team hotel and he was able to draw upon the experience and confidence of the elder tackle to help calm the nerves that naturally came with being a young starter on such a big stage.
Through those experiences, the dynamic of the relationship between the veteran fifth-year senior and the raw freshman saw a gradual transformation.
“Me and David have gotten exponentially closer since the injury,” Phillips explained. “I’d just say the more teacher-student type thing changed into a friendship.”
It’s an unlikely friendship; the two are four full years apart, meaning that they likely have different natural groups of friends on the team and not many shared experiences to draw upon. But it’s an unlikely friendship that has been fostered by unlikely circumstances in a time of necessity.
And moving forward, nothing changes between the two friends, even with Phillips chomping at the bit for more playing time and Parry set to eat into the lion’s share of that playing time once he returns to the field from his injury.
“It’s not a jealousy thing or anything,” Phillips said. “I’m just happy to have tried to fill his shoes while I could, and we’re still pushing each other every day in practice.”
David Parry will be back at his customary nose tackle position on Saturday for Senior Day against Utah.
And as valuable as the experience of being thrown in on the front lines has been, Phillips does at times look back on his cameo as the Cardinal’s starting nose tackle with some disappointment as well.
He still has many strides to make to become a starter on the line, including significantly developing his technique and bulking up to meet the physical demands of the position. He knows that he needs to improve, and he knows that being pushed into the spotlight as the unfinished product that he is at the moment served to highlight those shortcomings in his present game.
“I’m nowhere near where [the coaches] need me to be and I know that — I’m reminded of that by them every day,” Phillips said. “But that’s just more motivation to keep working hard every day and try to put in as much extra work as I can.
“Because those expectations are higher, I’ve got to be a lot harder on myself. I’ve been very humbled and humiliated.”
Despite his harsh analysis of his play, it’s still abundantly clear that Phillips will play a huge role in the Cardinal’s defensive picture moving forward, as a backup with in-game experience against the top offenses of Arizona State and Oregon and a thirst to work hard enough to catch up to those whose shoes he will eventually fill.
But one thought that Phillips has been unable to shake is the nagging worry that having been forced to burn his redshirt this late in the season — fellow freshmen Christian McCaffrey, Daniel Marx, Casey Tucker and Terrence Alexander all played at the start of the year — will ultimately detract from the overall impact that he could have had throughout his Cardinal career.
“I would say the experience was very needed, but if I had redshirted this year, I still would have had four more years to come in and play,” Phillips remarked. “It’s a scary feeling to know that my entire freshman year is gone and I’ve only seen the field maybe 80-90 plays or so. It’s a scary feeling because if I’d waited until next year, I might have seen the field 800 times, you know?”
Even if Phillips will have his career on the Cardinal defensive line cut short by a year by his use, however, he knows where he is right now and he knows where he needs to be. It’s just up to him to connect the dots and take advantage of the time that he does have.
It also helps that this season has showed that he’s not just the “next man up”; he’s “the next man up.” And when it comes time for him to be “the man” again, look for Harrison Phillips to be more than ready to seize the spotlight.