Four-star LB target Jacob Phillips sees fit in Notre Dame defense

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

When Jacob Phillips released his top five schools in July, the list consisted of powerhouse programs with national championship hopes this season.

Three weeks into the season, two of those schools — Notre Dame and Oklahoma — have had their title hopes washed away with a pair of losses each. Two more — Oregon and LSU — have already lost once. Yet Alabama, who will host him on an official visit for its game against Kentucky on Oct. 1, remains unblemished at 3-0 as the No. 1 team in the country.

Fortunately for everyone but Alabama, the four-star linebacker at East Nashville (Tenn.) Magnet won’t be committing based on wins and losses in 2016.

“Obviously in recruiting, you’re recruiting because you’re missing different things, and you’re recruiting to get better at different things,” Phillips said. “When you can see it when you’re watching the game that they’re lacking in different spots that should tell you — it doesn’t really matter to me if they win or lose now. But when I get there, I hope to be part of a winning team.”

Defense has been Notre Dame’s downfall to start the season, and it was again on Saturday night against Michigan State with Phillips in attendance for the 36-28 loss.

“They definitely didn’t have a good game,” Phillips said. “The linebackers didn’t really get much help from the D-line. Especially with a four-man front, the linebackers are probably used to moving more freely.”

Phillips said the struggles on the defensive line were explained to him as the result of inexperience up front. He translated that to mean they will be better next year by the time he joins a team.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Phillips said he spent a considerable amount of time talking to defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder about a number of topics including how he’d fit in his scheme.

“He explained to me that, with what he’s seen on tape, he can do a lot of different things with me, and I’d be a key player in the defense,” Phillips said. “Kind of like how they used Jaylon (Smith) and moved him around.

“He told me I’d have to come in and work hard. It’s not going to be easy because he runs an NFL-type of defense, so you have to know what everybody is doing. He really wants to find out if I was dedicated, and I’d be able to do it. He sees that I want to be great, and I would do it.”

Despite the defensive woes, head coach Brian Kelly has stood behind VanGorder as his coordinator. Any questions about VanGorder’s future coming from fans or reporters didn’t interrupt his recruiting efforts over the weekend.

Phillips said he sees VanGorder as a coach who could maximize his potential and lead a great defense. The seven years of NFL coaching experience on VanGorder’s resume holds value to Phillips.

“He has a lot of knowledge about what the NFL scouts want from a college linebacker,” Phillips said. “With Jaylon and Nyles Morgan now, he’s trying to give them every little thing about the defense. When the combine comes around, he’ll be the smartest of the pack.

“That’s only going to help you with your fits and knowing where to be at different times and playing with more awareness to know where everybody else is. I definitely want to be in a position where I’m being taught that now so that if I’m blessed enough to make it to the NFL, I’ll be able to move up fast.”

Phillips came to Notre Dame last weekend to experience much more than Xs and Os. He visited South Bend in March, but he wanted to return for a game. He couldn’t help but think of the movie “Rudy.”

“When Notre Dame offered me that was the first thing I thought about,” Phillips said. “Is it like the movie? That was pretty cool. I even put on my Snapchat, ‘Where’s Rudy?’”

He left Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night impressed by the atmosphere.

“I took away how into the game the fans are,” Phillips said. “There’s a lot of tradition, and they want to win up there. I want to be on a team that wants to win and bring in recruits that also want to win. So that’s a good thing.”

Play like a Champion!! #GoIrish#Traditionpic.twitter.com/xfRIAoOden

— Jacob Phillips (@jacobphillips_1) September 19, 2016

Phillips has already used three of his five allotted official visits to Oregon, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. He planned to visit LSU this coming weekend, but he canceled that trip earlier this month. Other than his scheduled visit to Alabama, Phillips said he could take an unplanned trip this weekend or the weekend of Oct. 8.

With each visit, Phillips said it’s both easier and harder to determine which school fits him best.

“I’m not sure because of all the similarities and how well I like a school, but I feel like I have a grasp on how my life would be there,” Phillips said. “Going to the games, I get to see how the fans are, who I’d be playing against and how the players relate with each other in the locker room. I definitely enjoyed my visits, but it could make it harder.”

But don’t plan on Phillips taking much longer in his recruitment. He’s given himself of self-imposed decision deadline for the middle of October.

“I definitely want to get the commitment thing over with,” Phillips said. “That’s why I wanted to take my five officials in the first five weeks. I’ll be able to commit right after that once I feel comfortable with a decision. This is my plan, and I’m still on it.”

tjames@ndinsider.com

574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

LB target Jacob Phillips, a 2017 recruit, during his official visit for the Notre Dame-Michigan State game. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)