ADA — Josh Phillips has been a lot of things during his career at East Central University. Comfortable isn’t on the list.
As a freshman in 2006, Phillips started several games and was responsible for two of ECU’s three wins during Kurt Nichols’ first season as head coach. In 2007, he was a capable understudy to two-time Lone Star Conference North Offensive Player of the Year Marcus Johnson, and in 2008 he redshirted so he would have a year of elibility remaining after Johnson graduated.
Last fall, with Johnson still on campus but struggling to grasp returning head coach Tim McCarty’s offensive system, Phillips was a starter again, taking snaps in all 11 of the Tigers’ games and starting seven. Johnson, meanwhile, played eight games at wide receiver before replacing Phillips against Southeastern in the season finale and leading a miraculous comeback that came within a point of wiping out an early three-touchdown deficit and netting an unlikely first victory in an historic 0-11 season.
But through all the ups and downs and the changes in his role during his four years in Ada, Phillips has always been two things above all — a competitor and a good teammate.
As he enters the final days of his final spring at ECU, Phillips is once again the underdog in a race for a job that, four years ago, appeared to be his for as long as he wanted it. McCarty put Tyler Vanderzee, a 6-6 junior college transfer, at No. 1 on the depth chart coming into camp, leaving Phillips as an understudy once again.
Despite the odds against him heading into Saturday’s Orange and White Game, though, Phillips has remained positive and upbeat, both about his role on the team and his ability to lead the ECU offense.
“I know that I’ve done all I can do,” Phillips said earlier this week. “I go to practice every day, I work hard, and I do my job on the field. I do all I can do, but ultimately it’s up to the big guys to make the decision.
“I’ve been here for four years, and I don’t think anything is owed to me, but I think I’ve competed well enough to start,” he added. “It’s always tough to stay positive when you’re being shown the back of the bus, but you have to stay positive and look at the big picture. I think I’ve played well when I’ve gotten a chance. Whoever the starter is, you have to help him so the team can win, and I’ve always been a team guy.”
Phillips said he and Vanderzee — a transfer from Mt. San Antonio Junior College — have very little in common as players but added that they have found a lot of common ground this spring, despite their competition for the starting job.
“We’re totally opposite as far as quarterbacks,” Phillips noted. “I’m more of a gunslinger and he’s more of a pocket passer. We get along real well. He’s one of my good friends. When two guys compete for a job, they’re supposed to be enemies, but it’s all about being mature. He’s my teammate ultimately.”
“I’m sure Josh isn’t very happy with the whole situation, but he’s been good about helping me understand the system,” Vanderzee said. “We’ve actually gotten along pretty well.”
While ECU has won a total of just 11 games during Phillips’ first four years, Vanderzee comes from one of the nation’s most successful junior college football programs. He said the coaching staff was the major reason he chose ECU as the place to spend his final two varsity seasons.
“I really like the coaches — I felt like they were good, honest guys,” Vanderzee said. “They told me when I was here that I would be with the No. 1 offense pretty much from Day 1. I wanted to go somewhere where I knew I would be THE guy, and I got a good feeling about where the program is going.”
While Phillips probably has the stronger arm of the two and the benefit of a year in McCarty’s system, Vanderzee has impressed the coaches with his pocket presence, his accuracy and his ability to grasp a new offense after spending his first two collegiate campaigns in the spread.
“Josh has done a great job of retention and attitude,” second-year ECU offensive coordinator Rashad Jackson said. “He knows this is his last year, and he’s had a good spring. He’s gotten better at a lot of things. He’s always had multiple guys at his position, but this spring he’s done a good job of establishing some goals and reaching those goals.
“Josh knows the offense, and Tyler has done a good job of picking it up this spring,” he added. “Once he picks it up, I think he will have a chance to do some good things.”
Neither Vanderzee nor Phillips will get a huge amount of playing time Saturday, though. Vanderzee is expected to start and play about a quarter, Phillips figures to play the second quarter, and the three younger quarterbacks on the roster — including former Sulphur star Robert Thomas — will take most or all of the snaps in the second half.
“Coach (McCarty) said Josh and I would probably play the first half, then the other quarterbacks will play the second half,” Vanderzee explained. “I’m pretty excited, because this is my first spring game ever. I’m looking forward to getting my first scrimmage under my belt as an ECU Tiger.”
Vanderzee said he had some obvious adjustments in switching from the pass-happy spread to McCarty’s more conventional pro-style system, but he said he feels his talents are better suited to the ECU offense.
“It’s not a huge transition,” he explained. “I was running the spread offense in junior college, but a lot of it was similar to what we do here. We just run the ball more here. As far as footwork, it’s all been pretty similar. I think this offense fits me better.
“I think I accomplished pretty much everything I wanted to this spring,” he said. “I just had to get comfortable with the playbook and my receivers.”
When Phillips was given the starting job in Week 2 last fall, he struggled, along with the rest of an offense loaded with young players who were wading through one of the nation’s toughest schedules while learning a new system, and, in many cases, adjusting to their first season of Division II football. The Tigers finished 2009 on the upswing, blowing double-digit leads in losses to Texas A&M-Commerce and Southwestern before falling short in their comeback bid against Southeastern.
“Overall, last year I got a chance to start, but I didn’t think I was put in a very good situation to be successful,” Phillips recalled. “We were almost like a brand new team. It felt like last year was our first year to be a football team.
“I think everybody in this town knows I can play — it’s just about coming together and everybody doing their job,” he added. “At the end of last year, our offense started clicking, because everybody started to figure it out. I think now everybody has figured it out, and I think that’s why we’ve had such a good spring offensively. I think we picked up where we left off at the end of the season, and I think we will be able be able to carry over the momentum we had at the end of last year.”
Although he might not be around to see it, Phillips said the tough lessons learned in 2009 could ultimately pay big dividends for the young players who were part of ECU’s first 0-11 season.
“It was probably the longest season I’ve been a part of,” he admitted. “We had played 11 games before, but that was hard. You at least know you can’t get worse — you can only get better from 0-11.
“Once we start winning — and we will win, because we have set the foundation — I think it will be something for those freshmen to look back on,” Phillips admitted. “Obviously that’s not going to be the highlight of their career, but it will say something about how hard they worked if they can go from 0-11 as freshmen to winning a North Division title. Somebody once told me that college football is about perserverence. I tell the younger guys that they have to work hard and practice hard every day. If they do both, they will have a chance to be successful.”