CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith says most junior college players who reach a school like the University of Illinois generally get there having traveled a journey filled with twists and turns.
Del’Shawn Phillips knows that journey well.
“When you go the JC route, there’s a story there,” Smith said Monday. “It’s a hard way. Once you’ve had to scratch and fight for everything you’ve got, they can handle a little adversity.”
Illinois’ new starting linebacker, who led the team with 16 tackles in Saturday’s 24-21 victory over Ball State, has had to confront plenty of adversity including some that was self-inflicted.
“When I was in high school, I was immature,” said Phillips. “I made bad decisions, skipping school and all that.”
He signed with Western Michigan out of high school but did not qualify academically and had to sit out an entire year before enrolling at Garden City (Kan.) Community College.
“When I didn’t qualify, it hurt me,” admitted Phillips, who hails from Highland Park, Mich., a city of more than 11,000 located within the Metro Detroit limits.
“Where I’m from, the neighborhood is not too pretty,” Phillips said. “I used it as my motivation.”
Eventually, Phillips became the leading tackler at Garden City and led the school to the national junior college title in 2016. Arizona looked to be the leader to take Phillips to the next level. But Illinois got involved late, fighting off Syracuse and Central Florida as well as Arizona.
For Phillips, the decision came down to which coaching staff could give him the best shot at making it to the NFL, and which coaching staff could give him the stability and sense of direction he never had in Highland Park.
“For me it was more about the people who were there,” he said. “It was never about things like facilities or what kind of city it was.”
Phillips said failing to qualify academically out of high school, “flipped a switch” that made him focus on erasing that mistake. “Every time I see my surroundings — the abandoned buildings, the homeless people out there — I just think I have to do better so I can come back and fix things up or give back to these people.
“From that point on I’ve tried to take advantage of my opportunities – school, football, whatever it is, just do my best at everything.”
Making his 16-tackle performance even sweeter is that fact that his parents and other family members were in Memorial Stadium.
“They saw me play for the first time in about three years,” he said. “It was great to play in front of them. I don’t think they’ve seen me smile so much in a long time. We’re a tight family anyway. We went out to eat, Buffalo Wild Wings, and it was all hugs and smiles. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that.”
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson appreciated Phillips’ Illini debut.
“He flew around and made some really nice plays out there,” he said. “Very active around the football. When a guy is making 16 tackles, he’s doing pretty good.”
Phillips said he should have had 20 tackles and gave himself low marks for his pass coverage.
“As a defense we agree we had a bad game,” he said. “We came out with a ‘W’ and that makes everything easier. But we know on third down, we have to do better.”
Phillips said he made just one goal this season and it won’t be measured by statistics.
“My only goal was to give my all on every play,” he said.
He figures it’s a goal that has turned his life in a better direction.
Giving his all got his new Illini football career off to a flying start.