CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Each tackle he makes is still humbling for Del’Shawn Phillips.
It wasn’t that long ago that he was without the game he started playing at the age of 6, and no clear path to pursue football at a top level.
“It was definitely dark,” Phillips said. “Even my family, they would just always tell me, ‘You’ll be alright. You’re going to be back.’ I didn’t know what to do without football. I was lost.”
Phillips had a standout career at linebacker for Cass Tech high school in Detroit, leading his team to a state title in 2012. He committed to play at Western Michigan but was ruled academically ineligible. He ended up in a community college, working out to stay in shape and out of trouble, but missing football for a year.
“Where I’m from, the neighborhood is not too pretty,” Phillip said. “Some people would go to my neighborhood and get down. Me? I used it as motivation.”
Division I attention long gone, Phillips decided to restart his career at Garden City (Kan.) Community College and started piling up tackles.
“Once I finally got (football) back, I started to smile more,” Phillips said. “Be in a better mood, be happy, (and build) better relationships with my family members.”
Phillips took full advantage of his second chance and after two seasons he was attracting fresh attention from Power Five schools. He chose to stay in the Midwest and went with Illinois.
Since then, Phillips hasn’t looked back.
He leads Illinois with 76 tackles this season, good enough for 10th in the Big Ten as the Illini defense finds itself on the field for long stretches. He had a 16-tackle performance in his Illinois debut.
Defensive back Jalen Dunlap is one of just 10 seniors on the roster and he said he isn’t surprised by the transfer’s production.
“He works hard,” Dunlap said. “He’s just a hard-nosed football player, a guy that’s not afraid to stick his nose in there.”
Phillips only had four tackles – his second lowest total of the year – in a 52-14 loss to No. 8 Ohio State. Heading into the final game of the year against No. 23 Northwestern on Saturday, he will try to bounce back with a big performance.
Phillips is averaging 7.6 tackles per game and coach Lovie Smith has plenty of faith in him.
“When you go the junior-college route, you know there is a story there,” Smith said. “It’s the hard way. When you’ve had to scratch and fight for everything they’ve gotten, they can handle a little adversity.”