Phillips, Stevens Eager to Return Home vs. Vanderbilt
For the majority of LSU’s roster, Nashville is the next destination they’re bound for in the 2019 season. For leading tacklers Jacob Phillips and JaCoby Stevens, it’s where their journey to Baton Rouge began.
Riding a three-game win streak, the Tigers travel to Nashville on Saturday to open SEC play vs. Vanderbilt. The SEC opener always carries a particular level of significance for every player, but for Phillips and Stevens in particular, it’s a chance to go home and play in front of friends and family.
“It’s gonna be a very emotional game for me, man,” said Stevens. “Going back and playing in front of friends and some adoptive family…you can’t even dream about it.”
As in any close friendship, Phillips and Stevens have no issues exchanging friendly jabs at one another about their high school days.
Stevens attended Oakland High School, a short 54-minute drive down I-24 from East Nashville Magnet, a school that boasted the No. 1 linebacker in the nation and one of Tennessee’s Mr. Football award winners in Phillips. That prize has sparked great, if completely unserious, contention between the two.
Five high school football players in their respective classifications ended up taking home that 2016 Tennessee Mr. Football award, including Phillips (Class 3A) and Stevens (Class 6A). After wrapping up media availability in the LSU indoor facility on Monday, the two continued to go back-and-forth about sharing that award – three years later.
“I won Mr. Football in my classification and I was ranked higher than JaCoby,” said a smiling Phillips. Stevens, predictably, jabbed back – his team had a better record, and he is happy to debate any recruiting ranking that had Phillips above him.
Although they went to different high schools, Stevens and Phillips remember training together at the National Playmakers Academy in Nashville. Familiar with one another, but not incredibly close, their bond at LSU has grown tremendously since signing their letters of intent.
“Everything he does, he does it the right way,” Phillips said of Stevens. “I feel like he’s the type of person that every team needs.”
The journey from Nashville to Baton Rouge for both Phillips and Stevens is unique. The two signed with LSU as four-and-five star players in a 2017 recruiting class flooded with talent. Stevens was an early enrollee, while Phillips remained unsigned late in his recruitment.
“I let Jacob do his own thing,” said Stevens. “Of course I talked LSU up, but I didn’t want to bother him. He liked all the things that I said [about LSU] and ultimately chose to come here.”
Before he signed with LSU, Stevens would religiously check the updated recruiting rankings every Saturday morning after playing on Friday nights. Highly recruited as the state’s No. 1 safety, he never worried about anyone jumping him in Tennessee’s rankings, except for one person: Jacob Phillips.
“I knew the type of talent he was,” Stevens said. “It was his work ethic, the things he did on the field…If I did have to say it, it would be both of us at the top.”
Now at LSU, where the two share a common goal and a healthy competitiveness lining up on the same side of the field, Phillips and Stevens enjoy playing together.
They play different positions but hold similar roles in a defense loaded with playmakers. Philips recorded 87 tackles beside All-American and Butkus Award winner Devin White the past two seasons. Stevens tallied 35 tackles and an interception last season after spending 2017 moving back-and-forth between wide receiver and safety. Both guys have waited their turn to lead their respective positions and are primed for breakout years.
“It’s what you live for,” said Phillips on his opportunity to be a leader of the defense. “I’m blessed to be in the position that I am. This is why you put in all the work so you can reap the benefits of it.”
He’s reaping plenty early in 2019. Phillips leads the team in tackles (25) while Stevens ranks third (17). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has used Stevens in zone coverages and blitz packages, showcasing his tremendous tackling ability in the open field, elite athleticism and versatility. Phillips is also the team’s top returning tackler and, with the departure of White, has taken over play-calling duties at linebacker.
Since the schedule came out last September, Saturday’s game has been circled for Phillips and Stevens. To say it’s just another game would be the conventional response, but they both know this one is going to be extra special.
“When I found out we were going back [to Nashville], I’ve been really pumped,” said Stevens.
“I approach every game the same, but obviously this one carries a little bit more,” said Phillips. “It’s an SEC game and all my family and friends will be in attendance. I’m gonna have a lot of fun with it. I can’t wait.”