The SEC is still a line-of-scrimmage conference, and what Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has built on Rocky Top is downright terrifying.
The third-year head coach of the Vols took over a program that was treated like a rental property that the owner wanted to let go into foreclosure under former head coach Derek Dooley, and he has built it up to a level where it will be picked by many—including yours truly—to contend for the SEC East title.
Dooley's ability to recruit and develop talent along the defensive line has played a big role.
Tennessee entered last season with a laundry list of questions up front, but the emergence of 6'3", 268-pound Derek Barnett last season helped stabilize the front four and turn the Vols into a power in the trenches. Barnett notched 20.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 72 tackles, establishing himself as one of the best three-down defensive ends in the country from the moment he stepped on the field.
It wasn't a one-man show, though.
Defensive end Corey Vereen, defensive tackle Danny O'Brien and defensive tackle Owen Williams are just a few of the returning Vols who helped post the SEC's second-best third-down defense (34.21 percent).
Seven of the eight players on the final two-deep roster of 2014 along the defensive line return in 2015, and injuries this spring were a blessing in disguise up front.
As Bleacher Report Tennessee Lead Writer Brad Shepard noted in March, the Vols injured or limited in the spring read more like a novel than an injury list. Barnett, O'Brien, Williams, redshirt freshman tackle Charles Mosley and early enrollee freshman defensive end Kyle Phillips are just a few of the big men up front who were banged up, which opened the door for more Vols to shine.
"We thought a lot of individuals stepped up and were very productive," Jones said on Wednesday's teleconference. "One was Kendal Vickers this offseason. We moved him to defensive tackle. So I think we had some individuals benefit from the accumulation of repetitions that was allowed them by the inordinate amount of individuals out."
Vickers, a 6'3", 288-pound redshirt sophomore, moved from defensive end late last season, and can provide quality depth at both defensive end spots.
That's the goal, right? Championship teams need nine or 10 players who can rotate in the trenches, and the emergence of Vickers has the Vols at that level.
But wait, there's more.
Tennessee has benefited from a total of 25 early enrollees over the last two seasons, including 11 in the 2015 recruiting class. Of those who participated in spring practice, one who could make the biggest impact is 6'3", 315-pound Shy Tuttle.
The Midway, North Carolina native emerged as one of the stars of the spring because of his talent and the opportunity he received due to injury.
"When you look at Shy Tuttle playing in the interior, and he gained over 500 repetitions this spring," Jones said. "I thought late in spring, he really started to get it."
He certainly did, based on the Vine below from Rocky Top Insider:
Tuttle was joined outside by 6'2", 250-pound early enrollee Andrew Butcher outside. The Alpharetta, Georgia native got plenty of work this spring at defensive end thanks to the injuries and, like Tuttle, made a case for a rotational role as a true freshman.
"Andrew did some really good things," Jones said. "Obviously, he has to get much stronger and put some weight on to compete in this conference.
"[Tuttle and Butcher] benefited from the repetitions and benefited from early enrollment. It's a transition, particularly up front. From style of play to physicality to conditioning to the overall mental toughness and mental effort that it takes. They both did a very good job. I thought they finished very strong."
As if that wasn't enough, even more help is coming in the form of 6'3", 354-pound, 5-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie. The Concord, California native and Vol legacy is more than just a space-eater.
"When I talked to McKenzie, he said he felt like he was good enough to play anywhere on the defensive line, from a 0-technique to a 7-technique," Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder said in January. "The kid isn't wrong. Seven might be a stretch, but he certainly is athletic enough to be a 5-technique in a 3-4 but then turn around and play 0 or 1 on the next snap.
"His speed is going to give centers and guards problems, and his strength will help him no matter where he lines up for the Volunteers."
He's going to be a star, but Jones hopes that expectations can be tempered a little bit before the start of the season.
"These are still 17- and 18-year-old young adults who are coming in and playing college football for the first time, and playing in the SEC and playing a position that is a developmental position," he said. "These are still going to be true freshman with Shy and Kahlil coming in. We're very excited about [Kahlil] and looking forward to him coming in this June."
If championships are won up front, Tennessee is well on its way to winning the SEC East and playing for the SEC title in the Georgia Dome.
Jones recognized a problem, fixed it through recruiting and development, and that work could pay off as soon as this season.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.
Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Picture Florida State commit Josh Brown, a 4-star linebacker and the No. 7 player out of the state of North Carolina, learning the ropes of the game of football as an elementary school student—and lined up at left tackle.
Now picture that kid unhappy. Miserable. Constantly upset that he's playing a sport he can't stand. Frustrated that he's learning to be good at something he has absolutely no desire to do.
"I couldn't stand going to football practice every day," Brown said. "We'd start off with head-to-head drills; I hated that. I hated hitting. I didn't know anything about the sport."
For years, that was Brown's life. He only played the sport, he said, because his father wanted him to. He was an athlete who generally had a high level of aggression, but he didn't love football.
That is, not until Brown, the son of a preacher and the youngest of five siblings, realized that channeling aggression using football was welcomed, almost considered an unwritten rule. From then on, something clicked in Brown. Football was fun. A lot of fun.
Now Brown, the nation's No. 14 outside linebacker, wonders how he'd ever live without the game. It's a game that has won him several accolades, earned him multiple college scholarships and allowed him to commit to a school that knows something about winning national championships.
"When I started making plays on the field and realizing I can hit people and not get in trouble for it, it was a good situation from them on," Brown said. "My dad kind of forced me into it, but I thank him for doing it."
'I can be good at this'
Brown, a defensive standout for Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, remembers seventh grade as a time of pancaking defenders. He remembers that adrenaline rush of putting larger athletes on their backs in an effort to open holes for his running backs and quarterbacks.
And then in the ninth grade, he was moved to the other side of the ball. He tried out a different position, defensive end, and fell in love.
"When I started making plays on the field, I said, 'Hey, I can be good at this,'" Brown said, "It was new to me. I knew I was in a good situation from then on."
Brown now is a hybrid defender, a 6'3", 220-pound buzz saw who can play outside linebacker in any scheme, as well as defensive end in an athletically schemed 3-4 formation. Even though he's a nationally ranked outside linebacker, he worked out at The Opening Charlotte regional over the weekend with the defensive ends.
And often times in one-on-one situations, he dominated. What was most intriguing was that Brown never wanted to get off the field. The Opening coaches frequently had to tell him to give other players a turn.
That alone should make Florida State fans happy, as well as head coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff.
"I'm trying to get better; I'm always trying to get better," Brown said. "I want to play as much as possible. I'll fight for playing time if I have to."
First chance, rewarded
Brown has 15 offers from coast to coast, including Alabama, Florida, LSU, Michigan, South Carolina and UCLA. Choosing Florida State, however, was much easier than some might have expected.
"I kind of knew from the jump," said Brown, who committed last September. "When somebody gives you a first chance without having film or anything like that...they took a chance on me."
The Seminoles were the first to offer Brown in April 2014. He was there for Florida State's spring game and had built a strong relationship with then-defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri, who now is an assistant coach with the Oakland Raiders.
Before boarding a plane for an unofficial west coast tour of Stanford, UCLA and USC, Brown received news to give Florida State a call. It was then when he found out he had his first offer.
"My dad starting crying. He was super excited," he said. "It was a really big moment."
Since Sunseri's departure, Brown has been in contact with both Brad Lawing, Sunseri's replacement as defensive ends coach, and running backs coach Jay Graham, a North Carolina native who recruits that area. Brown's commitment to Florida State is stronger than ever with the help of those two.
That's something of importance, considering Brown loves to travel and see other schools. He most recently took an unofficial visit to Oregon, calling it "amazing" and comparing the atmosphere to "a spaceship" with all the high technology and futuristic sites of the campus.
While he said he'll take multiple visits, Brown said his heart is still with Florida State. He added that he's looking to graduate early.
"I'm just ready to get there," he said.
Leading and serving through faith
Brown's first name, Joshua, is Biblical and is translated on various sites as "God is my salvation." Brown was taught to be a follower of God, someone willing to pass on God's tutelage and someone who will be a leader through God's word.
As the son of Bishop Fred Brown, who teaches at The Faith Center Church, with locations in Bluefield, West Virginia, and Charlotte, Josh has grown up all his life in the church. His faith is something he takes very seriously.
"It's everything," he said. "God is the only reason why I have what I have right now. I wake up every morning and thank him every day."
Brown said he's been an active member in the church for as long as he could remember. As a young boy, he would hold a bucket to help the church collect offerings. Now, he assists more with sound technology.
His faith has been a primary contributor in his game and his recruiting process. And he uses that faith to be a leader for Mallard Creek, a back-to-back North Carolina Class 4A state champion in football.
Expect him to do the same for the Seminoles.
"I have a super-strong relationship with God," he said. "I've got to be a leader."
Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama’s search for a quarterback took a small but sharp turn on Wednesday.
ESPN.com’s Brett McMurphy confirmed speculation that had predictably been swirling ever since Everett Golson announced his intention to transfer from Notre Dame:
Of course, the last time the Crimson Tide saw Golson, he was running for his life in a BCS Championship Game slaughter. But a lot has changed since that decidedly one-sided night in Miami, and now Alabama, reportedly, wants Golson on its side.
So would he be a good fit at Alabama? How possible is it that it actually happens?
If he can get to campus (more on that in a moment), there’s no guarantee that he would be the starting quarterback, like anybody who would theoretically transfer to Tuscaloosa.
The Crimson Tide already have five quarterbacks on campus, none of whom are far and away a favorite, nor particularly terrible either. It’s an even fight so far.
Golson’s biggest personal obstacle to the starting job is his ball security, or lack thereof.
Nick Saban first and foremost wants his quarterbacks to make good decisions and take care of the football. Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett visited with the Alabama staff during the offseason, and he preached the strong correlation turnover margin has to winning percentage.
Saban has been repeating that wisdom any chance he’s had this spring. If you didn't think ball security was important to him, you know now.
And the quarterback may be the single most responsible person for turnovers on the field.
“Knowledge and experience comes into that,” Saban said after a spring scrimmage, listing characteristics he wants in a quarterback. “Instincts and awareness, understanding of the offense, confidence, all these things are factors in this. Ability to be accurate, be a good decision-maker with the ball, take care of the ball.”
Golson didn’t exactly do that last year, committing 22 total turnovers, most of which came in a season-ending free-fall of five losses in six games after winning six straight to open the year.
The thought of 22 turnovers coming from a single player probably makes Saban pull out his hair, which is gray enough already.
Still, Golson has FBS starting experience, something no other quarterback currently in Tuscaloosa can say—including Jake Coker, who couldn’t latch on right away as a grad transfer last year.
If Golson were to win the starting job and show that he can take care of the ball, he would be a good fit for Lane Kiffin’s offense.
The Blake Sims comparisons may seem lazy, but there is some legitimacy there.
Both listed at 6’0", they’re similar in stature. Their passing numbers from last season are eerily similar, too:
And while he doesn’t run as much as Sims or put up the same type of numbers on the ground, he does possess the lightning-bolt quickness, especially evading the rush behind the line of scrimmage.
Kiffin has proved that he can take on a raw, project-type quarterback and turn him into an All-SEC-caliber player. It’s hard to believe he couldn’t do the same with Golson.
This is all assuming, too, that Golson will be able to transfer to Alabama, which is far from a certainty, as McMurphy pointed out in his original report.
The SEC has strict graduate transfer rules that will make it very hard for Golson to get a waiver.
For one, the player has to have two years of eligibility left, not one. However, there is an exception for someone who wants to pursue a graduate degree not offered at their former school. I’d trust Saban and Alabama’s academic advisers could find one that fits that description.
But there is another condition that must be met for an exception to be granted:
The student-athlete has not been subject to official university or athletics department disciplinary action at any time during enrollment at any previous collegiate institution (excluding limited discipline applied by a sports team).
Golson definitely falls short there.
That certainly qualifies as “official university… disciplinary action” and would seemingly make him ineligible for a transfer anywhere in the SEC, not just to Alabama.
Golson-to-Alabama would give the Crimson Tide another candidate at quarterback, and an interesting, high-profile one at that.
But there are plenty of hurdles to cross first, both on and off the field.
Alabama needs to persuade the SEC to even get him to campus. Golson has to take better care of the football or he'll never see the field.
If the Crimson Tide can get those done, they'll have a quarterback with the right skill set to thrive under Lane Kiffin and be just the piece they were looking for under center.
Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and reporting were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.
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Tyrek Tisdale—a 3-star all-purpose back, according to 247Sports—will continue his football career at the University of Florida. The talented athlete can play a number of offensive positions, from running back to wide receiver.
Bleacher Report's College Football Analyst Michael Felder breaks down Tisdale's game and where he fits into the Gators' offense.
What position will Tisdale play for Florida next season? Check out the video and let us know!
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Before death was unleashed in his two-man cell on April 11, inmate No. G31982 led a quiet life inside the stone and concrete walls of California's Kern Valley State Prison, a haunting, fortress-like structure that rises out of a dusty patch of land in the San Joaquin Valley.
Most mornings inmate No. G31982 was stirred awake at 6 a.m. as guards at Kern told the nearly 4,000 all-male prisoners—the maximum-security facility was built to hold 2,400—it was time to begin the day. Soon a hot breakfast that typically consisted of eggs, hash browns and thinly sliced ham was delivered room-service style to his cell. Many mornings he purchased a special package of vitamins and proteins, the fuel for his late-morning workout.
For a few hours Kern's most notorious prisoner then had some free time in his cell. He loved to read books—he devoured about one a week, according to several people who corresponded with him. The words in the pages were his escape, his way to fly away from his chains at Kern.
He also wrote letters, reams of them, to old friends and mentors. He was particularly interested in the state of the Nebraska football program, wondering in his handwritten notes how it had fallen from the ranks of the nation's elite. Yet his prose was steadfastly upbeat in his missives.
"He was trying to earn good-behavior time in prison," said George Darlington, an assistant coach at Nebraska for 30 years who regularly traded letters with inmate No. G31982. "He was focused on the future, on getting out and getting another chance at life."
Later in the morning, along with many of the condemned wearing their state-issued blues, inmate No. G31982 would be released to the yard.
Though there weren't any weights to lift—"We had to get rid of the weights a few years back because inmates used them as instruments of destruction to kill each other," said Lieutenant Marshall Denning—he'd work out with such intensity it was as if he was back in the training center at the University of Nebraska.
He'd do pushups, situps and burpees. On a pullup bar, he'd lift himself up over and over to the point of exhaustion. Other times he'd run sprints across the yard like he was training for the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
In the early afternoon he'd be escorted back to his cell, where he'd eat a sack lunch that usually featured either a bologna or pastrami sandwich, an apple and a cookie or two. Then, for a few hours, he'd work on his appeal of his two convictions: felony assault with a deadly weapon and domestic assault. The sentences for the two guilty verdicts added up to nearly 32 years behind bars.
Though inmate No. G31982 earned more than $5 million in the NFL from 1996 to '99, he was now broke and couldn't afford to hire a private lawyer. After his second conviction in 2009, he fired his public defender.
In the evenings he was free to roam in what is called the "Day Room Floor," an area inside Kern where inmates can sit at tables and converse. But inmate No. G31982 almost always kept to himself—which made him an ideal prisoner to his jailers.
"He was not someone who caused problems, and he was really quiet, just doing his own thing," said Denning. "We have got the worst of the worst in here, the most violent of the most violent, and that was not Lawrence Phillips from what I saw. Not at all."
According to three sources, Phillips—the former Cornhusker running back who was the No. 6 overall selection in the 1996 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams—asked prison officials several times to be put in solitary confinement for his own protection.
In at least two instances Phillips' wishes were honored, according to a source. But then in early April, for reasons that remain unclear, Phillips, 39, was moved from isolation into a cell with 37-year-old Damion Soward, who was the cousin of former USC Trojan and NFL wide receiver R. Jay Soward.
Prison officials didn't respond to a request from B/R seeking clarification on why Phillips was moved out of isolation.
According to court documents, Damion Soward was a member of the Inland Empire Projects Gang in San Bernardino, California. He was serving 82 years to life for the murder of Michael Fairley, a rival gang member.
"Lawrence wanted nothing to do with the gangs in that prison," said Tony Zane, Phillips' high school football coach at West Covina (California) High, who has communicated with Phillips about twice a month for several years. "That was why he was always asking to be moved into isolation. He knew that guys could make a name for themselves, so to speak, if they came after him because of his notoriety."
At 12:46 a.m. on April 11, Soward was found strangled to death in the cell he shared with Phillips, who has been named as a murder suspect. The district attorney, who has been investigating the incident for nearly one month, has yet to announce if any charges will be filed.
Soward's family is looking for answers. "I just want to find out what happened," R. Jay Soward told TMZ. "That's the only thing I care about."
Several people close to Phillips believe they already know what happened in that tiny cell in the dead of night on April 11.
"I truly believe this was a situation where Soward said, 'Only one of us is walking out of here in the morning,'" said Zane. "Look at Lawrence's history. Yes, he has a very troubled past, but he's never done anything like this. Look at Soward's history as a hit man. I believe this was 100 percent self-defense. I believe Lawrence had no choice. Lawrence has been a target at Kern ever since the day he got there."
Two decades ago, in the spring of 1995, I traveled from my home in New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska, to spend time with Phillips for what would turn out to be my first Sports Illustrated cover story. Phillips was entering his junior year at Nebraska, the world spread out before him like an endless buffet of chances, and he was already being compared to some of the greatest I-backs in Cornhusker history: Mike Rozier, Roger Craig, I.M. Hipp. Phillips was the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite.
The previous year he had run for 1,722 yards—still a record for a sophomore at Nebraska—and helped Nebraska win the 1994 national championship. But instead of focusing on his on-field gifts, I wanted to burrow deep into Phillips' past. Only 20 years old at the time, he had already lived a remarkably hard life. I wanted to understand what made him tick.
In 1987 Phillips' mother, Juanita, invited her boyfriend to stay in their home in Inglewood, California. Lawrence and the boyfriend bickered constantly—the boyfriend allegedly abused Lawrence, according to Jason Cole, then writing for the Sun Sentinel—and Lawrence began to run away from home and skip school.
State officials eventually intervened and placed Lawrence in a foster home. After living there for only two weeks, he was transferred to MacLaren Hall, a juvenile detention center straight out of a child's worst nightmare, a place where abuse was allegedly rampant, according to Carla Rivera of the Los Angeles Times.
We may never have heard of Lawrence Phillips if not for Barbara Thomas, who supervised a state-supported group home in West Covina. "When I first saw Lawrence he looked very athletic, but he was smoking cigarettes," Thomas told me back in '95. "I knew sports would give him a chance, so I took him into our home and immediately enrolled him in sports leagues."
The rage that tormented Phillips' life—"He was basically abandoned by his mom and his dad wasn't around, so that caused a lot of anger in Lawrence," a Nebraska staff member told me—was his best friend on the football field. He soon emerged as one of the top high school running backs in the nation, a snorting bull of a back with 4.4 speed and always charging at the red flag. He picked Nebraska precisely because it was so far from his troubled past in California.
When Phillips and I sat down in the lounge beneath the south end zone of Memorial Stadium, he eyed me suspiciously. I was only 23, and I tried to connect with Phillips by telling him how much I enjoyed the college lifestyle and that he should savor every moment of it.
He eventually warmed up and then shared with me many of the horrors from his past: nights of being homeless, not going to school for weeks at a time, trying to stay a step ahead of the gangs in his neighborhood.
"It was a tough time," he said. "But I owe a lot to my school. They stuck with me."
Phillips, a sociology major, spoke about how he one day wanted to open a group home for wayward kids. He was articulate—in eighth grade, standardized tests revealed him to be intellectually gifted—and passionate when he dreamed aloud of helping others.
As we ended our conversation, Phillips leaned closer to me. In a soft voice, he said, "I'm still working on controlling myself and my temper. Lincoln has been a great city for me to grow up and mature in, and I'm learning to stay out of situations where I could get in trouble."
Phillips then rose and disappeared into the Nebraska locker room. I wouldn't see him again for four years.
About five months after I spoke with Phillips, Nebraska traveled to East Lansing, Michigan, and administered what remains the worst drubbing of Nick Saban's coaching career. In the Huskers' 50-10 victory over Michigan State, Phillips rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy was his to lose.
But later that night he did just that. Phillips, according to several sources, was asleep in his Lincoln apartment when he was awakened by a phone call. The person on the other end of the line informed Phillips that his former girlfriend, Kate McEwen, was inside the apartment of sophomore quarterback Scott Frost, who is now the offensive coordinator at Oregon.
In a fury, Phillips stormed to Frost's apartment, scaled the wall to his third-floor balcony, entered and dragged his ex-girlfriend by her hair down three flights of stairs. Phillips was later arrested for assault. (He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge.)
According to several former Nebraska coaches, McEwen was Phillips' first true love. "Lawrence has major abandonment issues, especially when it comes to females because of how he was treated by his mother," said a former Nebraska staffer. "He was never given the proper counseling to develop coping mechanisms when he's put in a high-stress situation. And when he got the call in the middle of the night, he just lost it."
Nebraska coach Tom Osborne suspended Phillips six games, but he allowed his troubled tailback to return for the final three regular-season games and for the Fiesta Bowl. Facing No. 2 Florida on Jan. 2, 1996, Nebraska won its second straight national title, demolishing the Gators 62-24. Phillips ran for 165 yards and scored three touchdowns.
But this Nebraska team was never invited to the White House. "There was a cloud over that team, and a lot of it was because of Lawrence," said Ron Brown, a longtime assistant at Nebraska who is now at Liberty University. "The White House wanted nothing to do with us."
Brown can still recall the moment he realized Phillips could have emotional problems. During Phillips' freshman season of 1993, Nebraska played UCLA in the Rose Bowl, which sits just a few miles from where Phillips grew up. Midway through the game, Phillips, who would rush for more than 100 yards in Nebraska's 14-13 win, fumbled the ball, and the Bruins recovered.
Phillips ran to the bench, took a seat and began sobbing uncontrollably. It was a staggering outpouring of emotion, especially considering Barbara Thomas had never seen Phillips cry once between the ages of 12 and 18.
"Lawrence looked like this grown man, but there he was on the bench crying like a baby," Brown said. "I put my hands on his shoulder pads and said, 'You'll get more opportunities. Just stick with us.' But in that instant I realized that there is a sensitivity to Lawrence that few people ever saw. He grew up rough, but he was innocent and naive in many ways. There was a little baby boy in there that never grew up.
"I wondered then—and still do now—if that's how he acted in his relationships when they didn't go well. He just couldn't handle trauma, like there was always something swelling inside of him. When he let someone down or someone let him down, he had a hard time coping, just like most little children. As adults we have a foundation and a way to deal with these things. But Lawrence never had that. He was never coached in the ways of life."
The next time I spoke to Phillips was in Barcelona, Spain, in the spring of 1999. At the time he was trying to resuscitate his flagging career in NFL Europe.
Though Phillips was a Category 5 risk of a prospect, the Rams had selected him with the sixth overall pick of the 1996 draft. In less than two seasons in St. Louis he was fined more than 50 times for an assortment of violations. And on the field he appeared a step slower than he was at Nebraska. At the request of the Rams coaches, Phillips gained about 15 pounds from his Nebraska playing weight of 205.
"I'll never understand why the Rams coaches had him gain weight," said Darlington, the longtime Nebraska assistant. "They thought he needed to bulk up, but Lawrence was already a power runner. And throw in the fact that they had a rookie quarterback [Tony Banks] who fumbled every other snap, and Lawrence had no chance. Every time he came into the game there would be nine guys at the line of scrimmage focused on him."
Frustrated with the losing—the Rams went 11-21 in 1996 and '97—Phillips grew increasingly withdrawn. When head coach Dick Vermeil told Phillips late in '97 that he was being demoted to second string, Phillips immediately left the Rams' practice facility.
A day later, when Vermeil announced he was releasing Phillips, he told reporters that Phillips had more potential than any running back he'd ever coached. As the coach spoke, he choked up, and his eyes moistened. He wasn't the first to feel as if he had failed to save Lawrence Phillips.
The Miami Dolphins picked up Phillips late in 1997. In two games he gained 44 yards on 18 carries. He was cut after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery for allegedly hitting a woman in a Plantation, Florida, nightclub who refused to dance with him. It was an all-too-familiar story: A woman who rejected Phillips wound up on the business end of his wrath.
After sitting out a year, Phillips went to play for the Barcelona Dragons in NFL Europe in the spring of '99. At the time I was researching a book on the league—The Proving Ground would be published in 2002—and everyone in the Dragons organization marveled at Phillips' talents and his willingness to follow orders.
"Lawrence loved to practice," Jack Bicknell, Barcelona's head coach, said at the time. "Every time we ran a play, he'd break through for 40 or 50 yards. I'm sure he did that all of his life because I've talked to people at Nebraska, and they said he was one of the hardest-working guys they ever had."
In the resort town of Sitges, a half-hour drive south of Barcelona, where the Dragons were based and where temptation lurked around every corner, Phillips rarely went out. Occasionally he'd play dominoes with his teammates in the lobby of the team hotel, but usually he stayed in his room or lay on the beach and listened to music.
He also liked to wade in the Mediterranean, the warm salt water soothing to his legs. It was the perfect football environment for Phillips: He practiced, went to meetings, ate his meals, kept to himself on the beach and went to bed early—a simple life.
Phillips thrived. He became the first player in the history of the league to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He was named NFL Europe's MVP. And he led the Dragons to the championship game, which they lost to Frankfurt 38-24.
"Without Phillips, that team would not have won two games," Amsterdam coach Al Luginbill said at the time. "If he can learn to run with the right people and stay away from alcohol, he can be all right. But when he boozes, he becomes a different personality."
Twenty years have passed since my first conversation with Lawrence Phillips. I sit in my home office, a middle-aged writer now, searching for clues about Phillips, trying to understand how so much promise can turn into so much despair.
I have written Lawrence a letter requesting to speak to him—as long as he is in administrative isolation at Kern, this is the only way anyone outside of the prison can reach him—but I have yet to hear back. Phillips has told a few friends that he wants people to forget about him, but I cannot shake the mystery that is Lawrence Phillips.
Reporters, with enough digging, can often uncover truths about their subjects that the subjects themselves cannot see. But what is the great truth about Lawrence Phillips?
After NFL Europe, Phillips signed with the San Francisco 49ers. He didn't last an entire season. The beginning of the end for Phillips in the Bay Area came on a Monday night game against Arizona on Sept. 27, 1999. He didn't make a block on blitzing cornerback Aeneas Williams, who throttled quarterback Steve Young with a devastating blindside hit. Young, knocked out cold, suffered a concussion—the final one of his career. He never played again. San Francisco waived Phillips later that fall, his final exit from the NFL.
Away from football, Phillips burned through his money. "We'd go out for a night, just the two of us, and by the end of the night there would be 30 people in our group at a club," said one of Phillips' friends. "Lawrence would pay for everybody. And this happened a lot. I mean, all the time."
Phillips, broke, had just borrowed $100 from a former high school teammate in August 2005 when he went to Exposition Park in Los Angeles to play in a pickup football game. Minutes after the game, Phillips couldn't find the $100. Accusing a few of the teenage boys he'd been playing with of stealing from him, he drove his SUV into a throng of the kids.
No one was seriously injured, but in October 2006 he was convicted of felony assault with a deadly weapon. While serving his seven-year sentence, he was convicted of an earlier domestic violence charge against his girlfriend and sentenced to an additional 25 years.
So what to make of Lawrence Phillips? I phoned a former staff member at Nebraska who I have known for 15 years, a man who is as familiar with Phillips as anyone.
What, I asked, is the underlying moral of the Lawrence Phillips story?
"This is a story of one thing," he said."This is a story of a broken kid who never got the help, for whatever reason, that he really needed. He never got the help to overcome the demons that were created in his childhood."
In the end, in the case of Lawrence Phillips, the demons beat his angels.
The D.A.'s investigation into the homicide of Damion Soward continues. Alone in his cell, Phillips waits for yet another judgment day.
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In the past few weeks, the Braxton Miller-to-Alabama rumors have started to die down, at least for the moment, as Miller has yet to announce any intent to transfer from the Ohio State Buckeyes. But a college football offseason without constant rumors would be no fun. So as the Miller speculation has dwindled, the rumors of former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson going to Alabama have begun to spring up.
After leading Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship game in 2012, Golson was suspended from the Irish program for the 2013 season for academic reasons. After returning to his starting position in the 2014 season, Golson appeared to be having a strong comeback campaign before faltering down the stretch and ultimately surrendering the starting job to sophomore Malik Zaire.
As a graduate transfer, Golson will be eligible to play immediately wherever he chooses to resume his college career. ESPN's Brett McMurphy has reported that Alabama was one of 10 schools that Golson gave to Notre Dame's compliance department as potential transfer options. In the same report, McMurphy stated that Alabama would accept Golson as a graduate transfer if he were to make the decision to play for the Crimson Tide.
The possibility of Golson playing in Tuscaloosa has Alabama fans intrigued after a spring that featured inconsistent play from all five of Alabama's current quarterbacks, including senior and former Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. Even a month after spring practice, head coach Nick Saban recently confirmed that no clear starter has emerged for the 2015 Crimson Tide thus far.
The prospect of walking into a fairly open quarterback situation would have to be attractive for Golson. Of course, wherever Golson transfers, he will have only the summer and early fall to learn a new offense and lock down a starting job. If there is one thing that Alabama fans learned from the 2014 season, it's that a high-profile transfer isn't guaranteed anything.
Golson would seemingly be a strong fit in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's scheme at Alabama. After the incredible progress that former Alabama quarterback Blake Sims showed in one season under Kiffin, a player with the physical similarities to Sims that Golson possesses could help the Alabama offense transition smoothly into this season.
Unlike Sims, who had never started a college football game a year ago, Golson already has two full seasons as a starter in a Power Five program. Of course, one glaring difference is that whoever leads this year's Tide offense will have to do so without the services of consensus All-American Amari Cooper. However, this year's Crimson Tide will still feature a corps of talented young wide receivers.
An obstacle that could prevent Golson from finding his way to Alabama is the SEC's rather strict transfer policy. Among the criteria for SEC transfers are at least two years of remaining eligibility and a clean disciplinary record from the the previous school. Golson has neither of those things and would require a transfer waiver to be able to play at Alabama or any other SEC program.
At this point, it appears unlikely that Golson lands in Tuscaloosa, and not only because he might still have nightmares of Alabama from the pummeling he took in 2012. 247 Sports' Ryan Bartow has reported that among his potential suitors the Florida State Seminoles are the current leaders for Golson's services.
The opportunity to succeed Jameis Winston and the SEC's strict transfer conditions may ultimately be too much for Alabama to overcome if they want to land Golson. But that won't stop fans' imaginations from running wild until a final decision is made.
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