Texas Longhorns strong safety Adrian Phillips has worked himself back into the mix defensively after a rough start to his junior campaign.
Phillips briefly lost his spot atop the depth chart in October, mainly because of poor tackling. But he's rebounded well and become a factor defensively for Texas in recent weeks.
"I had to identify the problem and get it fixed," Phillips said. "It was just missed tackles. I just have to eliminate the missed tackles and that can hurt any defense. One player can mess up the whole team and I just have to get that fixed."
Phillips twice missed tackles on long touchdowns against Oklahoma State on Sept. 29, and saw a decrease in playing time in the following weeks. Several games passed before the Texas coaching staff regained faith in Phillips as a tackler.
Now, Phillips is once again making plays in the secondary for the No. 23 Longhorns (8-3, 5-3 Big 12). He had his first interception of the season against TCU on Thanksgiving and is third on the team with 67 total tackles.
During those early struggles, free safety Kenny Vaccaro drew upon past experience to help his fellow defensive back.
"I think his confidence got down," Vaccaro said. "I told him, 'My junior year, I didn't start out hot. Nobody was talking about me and then I got better. If you get better and better every game,that's how you get better as a player.' I think he really took that to heart and started playing better."
Senior defensive end Alex Okafor said he's been impressed by Phillips' thick skin.
"He received a lot of criticism at the beginning of the season, but he didn't let it get to him," Okafor said. "He always kept a positive mindset. I'm just so proud of him for being able to stay on and stay confident and continue to elevate his game."
Phillips had successful surgery on his right shoulder and January and missed spring practice as a result. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz believes that played a role in Phillips' slow start.
"I would certainly say that was a factor," Diaz said. "He plays a position with a lot of physical, one-on-one tackles that he has to make. I would imagine he'll benefit next year, getting a full season of being able to lift weights.
"All that being said, he has played much better the last four weeks and he's been very important to us. It's been valuable having him come back and play the role he has."
The Longhorns will need Phillips to be a sound tackler again on Saturday at No. 7 Kansas State (10-1, 7-1). Led by bruising dual-threat quarterback Collin Klein, the Wildcats lead the Big 12 with 36 rushing touchdowns.
By Austin Laymance/Special to the Star-Telegram