Drew Phillips strapped on his helmet and hit the practice field for the first time in spring camp on Tuesday.
"I feel pretty good being out here and feel I did pretty good," Phillips said. "I wasn't able to be out here on the first day because I had to catch up on some school work, so it was good to be out here. Before practice started I was up studying with all the players, so I feel like I did pretty good my first day."
Wearing his blue number 5 jersey during a team scrimmage, Phillips lined up in the backfield. Quarterback James Lark handed off the ball and Phillips slipped through the offensive line past nose guard Travis Tuiloma and into the defensive secondary. The coaches blew the whistle, signifying he was down.
"Oh yeah, it was amazing," Phillips said with a smile. "I'm just preparing for the next season and getting ready to play. It's going to be great."
The hurdle Phillips is jumping over now is gaining a better understanding of the Cougar offense.
"Yeah, it's coming to me," he said. "I feel like I have the speed and quickness and stuff. If practice would have been tackle, I would have scored a touchdown easily. You can't touch me on the butt and think that I'm down. I'm already past you and gone. That's six right there and out the house."
A confident and very assured Phillips did admit that when his number was called, he was a little nervous.
"At first I was [nervous] just because, you know, I'm still learning and trying not to mess up. I just try not to think about it, you know, and told myself that I knew what was going on and know how to do it. When I first got out here I had the jitters, but after everything gets going, then it became nothing."
Last year, Phillips ran on the scout team and was more involved with learning opposing offenses than his own.
"I was never with the offense and didn't learn any of the offense,” Phillips said about last year. “Now I have to pretty much cram the whole offense in. It's pretty tough and it's hurtin' the head with all the school work and all the studying."
Helping teach Phillips is his new position coach, Joe DuPaix.
"Oh, Coach DuPaix, love him to death," said Phillips. "I love him to death and he's a great guy. He's doing everything he can to help me with being a better running back, but he also stays on me with school and makes sure that I'm doing what I need to be doing, so that's good. I need somebody like that, you know. I'm out here all this way from Alabama where my family is at, and so he's become like a dad figure to me while I'm out here. It's just really good to have someone like him on the staff. It's amazing to me."
The relationship between Coach DuPaix and Phillips has grown quickly, and it's easy to see why. Coach DuPaix is not only intense on the football field and demands a lot from his players, but he also understands the personal and private side that endears players to their coaches.
"I've got a really good relationship with him," Phillips said. "I meet with him every day. I talk to him every day and it feels good. He's my father figure. My dad is 27 hours, away and I treat [DuPaix] like a father figure and go to him with help in anything, and he's always right there going above and beyond for me. I can't say enough about him. He's my father figure."
Of course, Coach DuPaix is also there to mentor Phillips as a running back.
"He's really good in understanding what type of a player you are," Phillips said. "He's coached me a lot with ball security, mainly. You know, with me I'm elusive, and so I like to juke a lot. For me, he's coaching me on ball placement and how to keep it in. Usually when your body jukes left or right your arm tends to rise up and the ball moves out. He talked about that with me and how the defenders will swat at it.
"He's also helped me with my footwork, knowing that I'm more the quick, elusive type. He's helped me with my cuts and my hips and that’s really helped me a lot with my game. He pretty much knows what each of us can do and what our strengths are."
Coming from Navy, where the option attack requires various types of runners each with a specific ability and role within the offense, Coach DuPaix has broken down each of his Cougar players based on their athletic abilities.
"He's broken everything down based on our abilities and let us know what our roles on the team are," Phillips said. "We had a meeting with him and he broke everything down based on athleticism and skills. The people like me, J.J. [Di Luigi] and Juice [Joshua Quezada], he wants us to do specific things, and then the other backs, he wants them to do specific things based on their abilities. He then coaches us and helps us better develop those individual qualities."
Getting players to buy into one’s system and philosophy is always a challenge for coaches coming to a new school. According to Phillips, the running backs are sold on Coach DuPaix, and it didn't take long to buy into him.
"He pretty much watches us and knows what we can do, and then helps us to improve more on what we can do as a player," Phillips said. "It really gives you confidence in him as a coach. It gives you confidence to know that what he is saying is what's best for you as a player. He knows so much about the different abilities of each player, you know. It gives you greater hope and confidence to listen to him whenever you mess up after thinking you did it right. Obviously he knows, and so you respect him and make the changes to do what he wants us to do to better improve our game."
The confidence in and respect for Coach DuPaix that Phillips and his running back teammates have came prior to spring camp.
"Oh yeah, we respect him big time," said Phillips. "He's a Navy SEAL. He came from Navy, so I call him 'Navy SEAL' because I feel like I'm bear-crawling every day.
"Before when we can out here before spring ball, we had drills last year but we weren't really that tired," continued Phillips. "Now after two drills, we're all tired and want to bend down, but we can't because we'll get into trouble. I actually had to run some more because of that, but it's good for us because it's getting us more into shape and more tough like a Navy SEAL. We were doing drills like a Navy SEAL just nonstop."
Now that spring camp has started, things haven’t gotten easier.
"After we do these drills, Coach DuPaix is like, 'Okay, let's go! Let's go,' thinking we were done. Now we're thinking, 'Are you serious?' You're just breathing hard and it's just really quick-paced and fast the whole time. He's putting us through drills at a Navy SEAL pace to see who is going to break down, to weed out who really wants to be out here and who doesn't. The good thing is everybody is still here, so that's good."