S Jermaine Phillips is the unlikely
The sudden realization must have hit him as hard as he hits opposing wide receivers – at 27 years of age, strong safety Jermaine Phillips is an "old man" among the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' safeties.
Gone are John Lynch, Dwight Smith and Dexter Jackson – former contemporaries of Phillips – and with just four years of experience under his belt, Phillips now finds himself the veteran of a group of safeties with little more than six combined years of NFL experience. That's right – just six combined years among five players: Will Allen, Donte Nicholson, Steve Cargile, Kalvin Pearson and Blue Adams. Other than Phillips, there isn't a safety on the Bucs roster with more than two official NFL seasons.
"Being the old guy is never good, it's never good," Phillips joked after a Bucs practice this week. "We had Dexter Jackson last year, and I used to tease him. I used to call him 'Uncle' all the time. So I'm afraid some young players are going to give me that nickname before long. Having the experience is always great, and hopefully I can keep doing this for many years to come."
The experience which the hard-hitting safety refers to comes in part from significant playing time – he started a career-high 13 games last season and made 85 tackles – and in part from lessons passed down from key veteran players such as linebacker Derrick Brooks, cornerback Brian Kelly and the departed Lynch, who now patrols the backfield for the Denver Broncos.
"When [Lynch] was showing me the ropes five years ago, all the things that he taught me are what I told myself I would do," Phillips said. "This is a veteran player taking me under his wing, showing me the ropes. I just want to do that for everybody involved. With the younger safeties or whatever, if I can help you then I want to be able to help you. My objective is to make Tampa the best team possible by any means necessary, and I'm going to try to do that.
"Especially this year, with a new coach [Greg Burns] and him learning everything and younger players coming in and trying to learn everything. It's up to me to pass on the things that [former Defensive Backs Coach] Mike Tomlin, John Lynch, and Dexter Jackson have taught me – just different things here and there that might be able to help a younger player to be successful."
Phillips knows how overwhelming training camp can be for young players. Five years ago, he was a wide-eyed rookie trying to make the Buccaneers' roster. Though he was a fifth-round draft selection out of the University of Georgia and an All-SEC first-team selection, Phillips admits he was lost during his first professional training camp.
"When I first got here I was all over the place," he said. "I didn't know where to go. Looking at the playbook, I was like, I just got out of college, I graduated, I didn't think I was going to be back in school."
That naiveté of five years ago is a far cry from Phillips' thought process today. These days in camp he's focusing on his keys, knowing his gaps and stressing the importance of winning the turnover battle. He says the job of a defense is to score and/or get the ball back, and he talks about hitting through guys, the way legendary safety Ronnie Lott did for so many years.
"It's a lot more fun for me right now just because I'm more relaxed, I know what I'm doing, I know where I need to go," Phillips said. "I know where other people are supposed to be now. I can't really put it into words, but it's a great feeling just to have an understanding of what's going on."
But don't think Phillips is only focused on helping his fellow players get better – he's constantly working on improving his own game and says he's thankful for the guidance of teammates such as Kelly, who are always willing to share their insight with him. Phillips has even shed 15 pounds this year in hopes of increasing his speed.
"My body's going to feel better," Phillips said. "I'll be able to recover quicker. Maybe I'll be able to cover a little more grass and then at the same time I could still be aggressive and hit with a little thunder so to speak.
"Every year I come in, I treat training camp like I'm a rookie again. I'm taking notes, I'm writing down all the defenses, all the trick plays, crazy formations that we might get, and different checks that we have to make here and there because it's something that you have to stay on top of. You have to know the checks and where to line up just like the linebackers."
And who said an "old dog" couldn't learn new tricks?