RICHMOND — Dashaun Phillips never liked to get beat and Stephen Burton had just given him what he’d consider the most memorable thumping of his college career.
Then a redshirt freshman cornerback at Division II Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas, Phillips weighed just 145 pounds. What Phillips lacked in size, he made up for with quick feet and strong coverage skills and coach Cary Fowler couldn’t resist putting him on the field.
Once the ball was snapped, Burton, West Texas A&M’s 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver, blocked Phillips all the way to the opponent’s sideline, knocking over the benches and water coolers in the process.
“I used to coach him so hard,” Fowler said. “I was so mad that I broke our bench. I was just driving him because I knew he’d respond. I told him, ‘You gotta have more fight than that.’ I always would tell him since he was a freshman, don’t let anybody across the country outwork you at any level.”
Phillips returned a touchdown for an interception two series later, but Fowler instead chose to keep showing him footage of Burton’s block throughout the season, which drove his cornerback berserk.
“I didn’t care how small I was,” Phillips said. “I was going to compete.”
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Nearly six years later, that desire still drives Phillips in his second season with the Washington Redskins. After playing six games in 2015 — mostly on special teams — Phillips returned to organized team activities and training camp to find himself, at times, in the starting nickel position between Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland.
He understands being the starting nickel back is an unlikely role for an undrafted player. Particularly one who’s been cut twice by other NFL teams and no college coach except Fowler wanted. Every time he takes the field, he reminds himself that he’s desperate not to miss his chance.
“I’m a dog out here,” Phillips said. “Playing alongside Josh and Breeland, those two are lockdown corners. They looking at me like, ‘What you gonna do little fool?’ I’m eating just like them. We don’t care about names. We just go out there and compete.”
After a blow, another shot
Phillips would rather discuss anything other than his 25th birthday, which fell on the same day the Redskins played the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17 last season. Washington had already clinched the NFC East and was resting its starters, but it wasn’t a meaningless game for Phillips. He was playing just 20 minutes from his hometown of Duncanville, Texas, against the team that waived him a few months after signing him in 2014.
In the second quarter, Phillips violently collided with running back Darren McFadden and was taken off the field in a stretcher.
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“At the time it happened I was scared myself,” Phillips said. “My body went a little numb. I don’t even like talking about it, man.”
The injury was classified as a stinger and Phillips was a full participant in practice the following Wednesday, but the moment was still unsettling. Phillips knew that if he wanted to compete at the nickel position in the NFL, he had to get stronger.
Last September, before Phillips signed with the Redskins’ practice squad, he was waived from the New York Jets with an injury settlement. His release followed a clear on-field message. In the first preseason game of 2015, he got hit so hard on a kickoff return that he lacerated his lung.
“I knew I wasn’t where I needed to be last year,” Phillips said. “I had to do something over the offseason to put myself in a better position to compete. It’s not that the [Jets] cut me, I cut myself from not having my body right and getting hurt.”
When Phillips returned home after the Redskins’ season, he dedicated himself to a regimented workout program and gained approximately 15 pounds to increase his weight to 190 pounds.
His mother Cassandra saw a more focused approach from her son, who passed up a family vacation to Niagara Falls to remain in Dallas and continue working.
“He’s not a quitter,” Cassandra said. “When he was injured, it was a really hard low, but he picked himself up and didn’t quit. When the Redskins gave him that opportunity, it was life changing.”
It was a departure from his normal routine in the summer, when Phillips, who aspired to be a firefighter, would often spend hours hanging out at a Dallas firehouse after he returned home from Tarleton State. Other times he’d shadow Cassandra, who owns a real estate agency, when she partnered with Realtors in Action and visited low-income housing neighborhoods. Together, Phillips and his mother would go to door-to-door and make sure the smoke alarms were functioning properly.
“I just enjoyed giving back, really,” Dashaun said. “Seeing people that are less fortunate, giving back to the community, it was fun. It might not sound fun, but it is. Once you do it, it’s rewarding.”
Making the next step
During a recent practice, wide receiver DeSean Jackson had slipped past the Redskins secondary and was closing in on a reception. Just as the play looked all but over for the defense, Phillips raced toward the sideline and broke up Kirk Cousins’ pass.
Aubrey Pleasant, the Redskins’ assistant defensive backs coach, turned to his unit and praised Phillips for identifying his target and getting there quickly.
“He’s got a skillset to work with, he’s really quick in and out of breaks and he’s got the skillset to be a good nickel,” coach Jay Gruden said. “It’s just a matter of now, mentally, doing the right thing.”
When Phillips reported for OTAs in the spring, he impressed the coaching staff and his teammates with how much he had learned about the scheme. One of his greatest adjustments was learning to disguise his intentions, something he struggled to do early on.
“I’m calming down, more poised,” Phillips said. “I used to tip off blitzes. I used to show my coverage so early and Kirk would just look at me and smile because he knew he had me. I actually just got confident, relaxed and just played. God gave me those feet, those hips, but God also gave me a brain and told me to slow down.”
Throughout the preseason, Phillips will compete with rookie cornerback Kendall Fuller, who the Redskins drafted in the third round, for the starting nickel cornerback position.
Just like that day against West Texas A&M, Phillips is resolved to not being outworked by others. After all, he never did like to get beat.