By John Shinn
NORMAN — It was the middle August, but Oklahoma defensive tackle Jordan Phillips sensed his career was at a crossroads when he sat down for a talk with defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery.
The redshirt sophomore had been at OU for two years and made a minimal impact during that period. Whether or not he would ever make more of one was riding on what he did in preseason camp.
“He sat me down and we discussed my goals and I what I wanted to do here,” Phillips said. “He said if I keep playing the way I’d been playing I wouldn’t accomplish anything I wanted to do. If I wanted to do what I wanted to do I had to suck it up.”
That was a little over a month ago. About two weeks before Phillips became OU’s starting nose guard. About three weeks before he made his first career start and about 35 days prior to his first career sack in last Saturday’s 51-20 victory over Tulsa.
The play of the entire defensive line has been a stunning surprise through the first three games, but the play of Phillips, in particular, has been essential to the group’s elevated play.
Statistically, a nose guard’s play is hard to quantify. They get double-teamed on virtually every play. Offensive play callers learned long before games were ever filmed that plays where the nose guard is not blocked have the same chance of success as boats with holes or planes without wings.
But what good nose guards do is open up plays for the rest of the front seven. They collapse pockets, so quarterbacks are flushed into the arms of defensive ends. They clog up holes between centers and guards forcing plays further outside into the path of defensive ends who aren’t being double teamed. They occupy center and guards to the point linebackers are untouched by offensive linemen.
“It has freed us up pretty good,” OU linebacker Corey Nelson said, “but he’s also been making the plays.”
It’s what OU’s coaching staff hoped they’d get from Phillips when they signed him back in 2011 out of Circle High School in Towanda, Kan. Physically, there wasn’t much he couldn’t do. The jaws of his fellow linemen dropped when the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Phillips did a back flip in practice one day. Men that big just don’t typically move in that manner.
Montgomery saw the athletic ability when he took over as defensive line coach last winter. He quickly figured out what needed to change with Phillips was his motor. He took plays off and it was leaving a lot of potential stuck in reserve.
It required some tough love.
“You know, the way I look at it is, I put my foot on his throat every single day. Because the minute you let up … you give him an inch, he’s gonna take a foot,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery set only set one simple goal for Phillips during that August chat: play hard every single snap. Accomplish that one goal and everything else will take care of itself.
“It flipped the switch for me to hear from a new guy that just came in,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t doing what I needed to do.”
Through the first three games, Phillips has. The Sooner defense looks, acts and plays like a different group than last season because of it.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said from the outset that this group needed defensive linemen to become playmakers if it wanted to make drastic improvement.
Well, the Sooners are 14th in the country in total defense — 50 spots higher than it finished last season. All the credit shouldn’t go to OU’s big man in the middle, but he’s part of it. And OU expects him to keep getting better.
“He’s really come on maturity wise and with his desire to get better and be a dominating player,” Stoops said. “That’s what has given him a chance to make an impact on games and to make plays. He’s a very athletic guy that has a really bright future.”