Last season, Coach Aaron Moorehead molded a wide receiver unit that looked utterly inept against Alabama into a group that had 3 receivers post more than 40 catches. The Virginia Tech short passing attack became the Hokies most reliable offensive weapon. By exploiting matchups, using counter-action, and pick plays, Scot Loeffler's passing game controlled time of possession and kept the Hokie defense off the field for long stretches.
Despite their surprising success, the Virginia Tech passing game struggled against teams than could successfully play man-to-man defense, especially against the smaller Willie Byrn and Demitri Knowles. The Hokies also struggled to create big plays over the top of the defense. One of the major goals in the 2014 recruiting cycle was to recruit wide receivers that could get separation against man coverage and beat it over the top.
Enter Cam Phillips. Phillips is a 6-1, 185 pound wide receiver who won Maryland's Offensive Player of the Year award after a 52 catch, 891 yards, 14 touchdown senior campaign at DeMatha. Phillips was also named first team All-Met (DC Metro Area high school football) by the Washington Post. On film, he has similar size, speed, and athleticism as current Hokie flanker Demitri Knowles. However, he has much more refined wide receiver technique. He quickly impressed me with his ability to create space, especially by beating man coverage and getting behind cornerback coverage.
Here, Phillips lines up against press man coverage. He is aligned to the wide side of the field as the split end. He is running a go route with an outside release. He beats the coverage through a combination of smarts and technique.
Being aligned wide, just outside the hash mark, affords him close to 15 yards of space on either side of the corner to get a release against press coverage. This is a smart adjustment before the snap that helps get him into position to make a play.
The corner actually guesses Phillips' route correctly, and he steps to the outside to prevent Phillips from getting a free release outside. Watch closely at the 47.4 second mark. Phillips plants with his inside foot, slaps the defender's left shoulder, and the swims his left arm over the outside shoulder of the defender. With the defender coming forward, Phillips takes advantage of his momentum and slingshots right past. This is essentially the same swim move that a defensive end would use to beat a tackle. Once he gets that step, Phillips works to the sideline to keep as much distance as he can between his catch point and the safety help that is coming across. It gives his quarterback a big target, and keeps the ball as far away from the threat of an interception as possible. Many young receivers will work back to the middle of the field (getting as close to the quarterback as possible), and inadvertently makes the play much higher risk.
Here, Phillips uses a similar move to beat press coverage. This is excellent technique.
Phillips next challenge will be dealing with the increased speed and power of ACC corners. Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson will likely be lined up across from Phillips early in fall camp as he works with the twos. If he can get separation against those two, he will be very successful in ACC play.
Besides getting separation, I am impressed at how well Phillips adjusts to the football. He is a "hands catcher" and gets the ball at the highest point.
In several of the clips, he attacks and clamps the football like a Gator-chomp, similar to former Hokie Jarrett Boykin. However, he is excellent at adjusting to the throw and doesn't seem to struggle adjusting to balls outside of that comfort zone.
Also noteworthy, several of Phillips' highlights came via routes that are very similar to ones Scot Loeffler utilized to maximum success with Willie Byrn last season. Here we see Phillips run a fake drag route where he pressures the linebacker to the inside, plants, and then turns back to the right flat. You will recall that Byrn made several big plays against Pitt and Georgia Tech on the same route.
Even more impressive, Phillips is very intelligent in reading coverage and making adjustments against zone coverage. Against a zone, receivers that continue to run linear crossing routes, slants, or posts, find themselves running from one defender's zone to another. A good receiver makes a sight adjustment and sits down in the soft spots between defenders. Here, Phillips runs the same fake drag to out in the right flat that we saw on the last play.
He quickly recognizes that he is bracketed by a linebacker to the inside and a corner on the outside playing a short zone in Cover 2. If he keeps running his route, the quarterback will throw the ball right to the corner. If he sits down in the gap, he is covered by the linebacker. So he adjusts and works back to the quarterback, gets his body in between the defender and the quarterback. He makes himself a target and bails his quarterback out when the quarterback should probably be looking elsewhere.
He has explosive yards after the catch potential, which is critical for the wide receiver screens that can help build the confidence of an inexperienced quarterback group.
Can Phillips play right away? I think his size and strength will be a major determining factor. He will likely grow from his current frame, but I am not sure if he will be strong enough to play as a split end on the boundary right away. His early work will likely come at flanker, where Byrn (51 catches, 660 yards) and Knowles (45 catches, 641 yards) both are coming off productive seasons. But, Phillips' film indicates that he is a refined product and can likely contribute right away if called upon. Play close attention to his production against the Hokies top corners in the fall. If you hear a buzz about him making plays, it is happening against the top guys. That could be a great indicator if he will contribute as a freshman at the flanker spot, as Byrn and Knowles could not get open against Fuller and Facyson last fall.