For all the talent the Ravens returned from a record-setting 14-2 regular season, a void was left at right guard when Marshal Yanda retired.
In the team’s season opener last Sunday, it was Tyre Phillips, a third-round pick in April’s draft, who was given the first opportunity to replace the future Hall of Famer.
It culminated an uncanny journey that even Phillips didn’t foresee when he was emerging as one of the best offensive linemen in the Southeastern Conference at Mississippi State. Or when he spent two years at East Mississippi Community College. And certainly not as a freshman at Grenada High School in Mississippi, when Phillips spurned a sport that wasn’t his first love.
“To be honest, I didn’t see myself here at all,” Phillips said Thursday.
Phillips' outlook stemmed from an upbringing that initially led him to basketball and music, not football.
The son of a preacher, Phillips grew up in the church, where he learned to play the piano and trumpet. That affinity for music drew him to the marching band in high school, where he played the trumpet. As a freshman, Phillips began playing football, but it was a hobby, not a passion.
“Obviously I had the size, it was more of just knowing how to play football and being an offensive lineman,” he said.
Phillips left the sport shortly before his sophomore year, but returned after his junior year at the behest of Mike McGee, Phillips' high school basketball coach.
McGee saw Phillips' physique and told him he had a God-given talent he could use on the football field while maintaining his love for music. Two weeks later, McGee died of a heart attack. It was a moment that stuck with Phillips and drove him to recommit himself.
So during his senior year, Phillips played on his high school football team, but left his teammates at halftime to join his bandmates in the marching band.
East Mississippi Community College football coach Buddy Stephens noticed Phillips with his trumpet as a junior when he visited Grenada for a recruiting trip. "He was as big as a mountain,” Stephens recalled. But by the time Phillips was a senior, Stephens envisioned a player who could be molded into a college offensive lineman.
With a slim resume in football, Phillips went to EMCC, which in 2015 and 2016 served as the location of “Last Chance U,” the Netflix series that chronicles football players' journeys at a junior college, as many work their way back to Division I programs after missteps.
“Through the course of trying to teach him how to play tackle, you just try to teach him how to make everyone run around the mountain, and learn to use your size until the strength and agility and everything came on,” Stephens told The Baltimore Sun.
It was a process for Phillips, who didn’t play much in his first season. That didn’t deter him.
“You saw in between the spring and summer between his freshman and sophomore year, you really saw him doing the little things of doing the extra work that he would need on the field," Stephens said. "He would stay late, he would be out early. … I think he knew he had talent, he just had to work it and learn how to play the game.”
The returns from Phillips' attention to detail began to show, Stephens said. He got stronger, reformed his body, and his confidence grew exponentially. After his second year, he transferred to Mississippi State, where he started 13 games as a senior in 2019.
When the Ravens selected Phillips with the No. 106 overall pick, they envisioned him as a guard in their offense, even though Phillips had never played a down in college at the position, aside from some time in the Senior Bowl and a few practice repetitions at Mississippi State.
“The biggest thing about Tyre was — and we all saw it, we had an agreement about him as a player — first of all his size, secondly his athleticism,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Friday. “He can bend and move his feet, he had long arms and a really good punch.”
But the coronavirus pandemic upended offseason workout programs and canceled rookie minicamps that would have eased a rookie into the rigors of an NFL regimen. Veterans such as D.J. Fluker and Ben Powers seemed to have the edge over Phillips as the team entered a truncated training camp period.
Phillips said the Zoom meetings that replaced the offseason program helped him transition to a new position. So did competing against a retooled defensive line with players such as Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, a baptism-by-fire approach that tested him but also served as a valuable learning tool. The wily veterans would school the rookie in team drills and educate him afterward on what they did to gain an advantage.
“To be honest, it wasn’t looking good at first,” Phillips said. “But obviously, it’s just practice. There really wasn’t a trick to it. I feel like we have the best [defensive line] in the NFL, so you’re just going against those guys repetitively and repetitively until it clicked.”
Coaches have raved about Phillips' versatility and an intellect that has allowed him to play a new position in such a short time. After a season-opening 38-6 win over the Cleveland Browns, Harbaugh called Phillips’ transition “remarkable” but added that the rookie “has a long way to go.”
As Phillips enters his second NFL game against the Houston Texans, his former coach still sees a calm that has allowed him to excel to this point.
“He has many more passions and he’s a well-rounded human being,” Stephens said. “He knows his self worth isn’t in his ability to play a game and I think that’s what makes it so much easier for him.”
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