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How Miami’s Jaelan Phillips went from five-star flameout to first-round pick

The possible Bucs target had to medically retire from UCLA but restarted his football career at The U.
Miami's Jaelan Phillips, seen here getting a sack against North Carolina State, starred in 2020 to vault himself into the first round.
Miami's Jaelan Phillips, seen here getting a sack against North Carolina State, starred in 2020 to vault himself into the first round. [ ETHAN HYMAN | Raleigh News & Observer (2020) ]
Published Apr. 14
Updated Apr. 14

When Jaelan Phillips arrived at Miami in 2019, he didn’t look like the former top recruit in the country, let alone a future first-round draft pick.

His 6-foot-5 frame had shrunk from 245 pounds down to 225. His muscles had atrophied after months away from the weight room. Forget about playing at an all-conference level. He wasn’t sure if he’d even get cleared to practice again after a medical retirement.

“Obviously there were times when I didn’t know what was going on,” Phillips said. “I didn’t know what my future held.”

He still doesn’t. The edge rusher will find out more on April 29 when he hears his name called somewhere in the first round of the NFL draft.

Related: Potential Bucs draft target Jaelan Phillips stars at Miami’s pro day

But for the first time since 2017, Phillips is sure about this: His future is in football.

That looked like a given four years ago, when the California native was a Parade All-American who turned down Alabama, Florida, Georgia and others to stay close to home at UCLA. He started (and starred) in the Bruins’ first game, recording 1½ sacks and breaking up a pass in the fourth quarter alone to help spark one of the biggest comebacks in college football history.

Jaelan Phillips (15) had five-star potential at UCLA.
Jaelan Phillips (15) had five-star potential at UCLA. [ MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ | AP (2018) ]

The problems started soon afterward. An ankle limited him to seven games as a true freshman. That offseason, a scooter accident injured his wrist so severely that it required two surgeries to fix. Add the stress of a coaching change, and Phillips’ attitude toward the game shifted. He started becoming the last player in the building and the first one out.

“I wasn’t really invested in football,” Phillips said.

When he suffered his third diagnosed concussion a month into his sophomore season, football seemed done with him, too. Phillips medically retired in October 2018 because of the injuries’ collective toll. He started taking music classes at a California community college.

Four months later, Phillips got a second chance — an offer from the Hurricanes to give football another try.

“Not a lot of people get second chances in life,” Phillips said.

He decided to make the most of his — he just had to get cleared to practice first. While his teammates prepared for games, Phillips was trying to improve his body in the weight room. Over the next year, his frame exploded to 260 pounds.

Jaelan Phillips was one of Miami's top players in 2020.
Jaelan Phillips was one of Miami's top players in 2020. [ MATT GENTRY | AP (2020) ]

Phillips worked just as diligently to adjust his focus. When music courses at Miami began to get in the way of football, Phillips changed his studies. During the pandemic, he caught himself daydreaming daily about making plays.

“I never lost my passion for football,” Phillips said. “I just needed a little kick in the butt.”

Related: Why opt-outs are this NFL draft’s biggest unknown

With his butt properly kicked from his medical recovery and a fresh start, Phillips finally blossomed into the star recruiting experts envisioned years ago. He ranked in the top 15 nationally in sacks (eight) and tackles for loss (15½) to earn second-team All-America honors.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper saw enough to declare Phillips the “best pure pass rusher” in this draft.

“I’m pretty confident in that,” Kiper said.

That lofty praise is even more impressive when you remember how raw Phillips remains.

An impressive pro day last month cemented Jaelan Phillips as a first-round pick.
An impressive pro day last month cemented Jaelan Phillips as a first-round pick. [ TIM BROGDON | Courtesy of Miami Athletics ]

He appeared in a combined 21 games (16 starts) with the ‘Canes and Bruins. He couldn’t practice at all during 2019 and had two of his four springs significantly disrupted (due to the scooter wreck and the pandemic).

“It’s still almost as if we haven’t really taken him out of the box yet,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said.

One NFL team will get the chance to do that later this month. Some early mock drafts considered Phillips a Bucs target with the No. 32 overall pick, but Phillips’ fantastic pro day might have catapulted him into the middle of the first round and out of Tampa Bay’s reach.

Related: Everything the Bucs could do with the No. 32 pick, according to one ESPN analyst

Regardless, Phillips believes his five-star comeback will make him even stronger at the next level.

“I know there’s going to be ups and downs, even moving forward,” Phillips said. “But I just feel like I’m so much more adequately equipped for this. I’m just ready to take on whatever’s next.”

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