The first time East Mississippi Community College head football coach Buddy Stephens noticed Tyre Phillips, it wasn’t for what Phillips was doing as a football player.
Stephens didn’t see what Phillips, now listed at 6-foot-5 and 331 pounds, could do as an offensive lineman until his senior year at Grenada (Miss.) High School in 2014. But he first laid eyes on Phillips during a recruiting trip a year prior, when he caught a glimpse of Phillips’ lifelong passion.
“I was recruiting his school, and … at halftime when everybody went in, he was staying on the sideline, and he would take his shoulder pads and his head gear off and he was playing the trumpet in the band at halftime,” Stephens said. “I was like, ‘Oh geez, that is the biggest trumpet player I’ve ever seen.'”
Phillips was taken in the third round (No. 106 overall) of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens, and he’ll likely compete for playing time at right guard. Phillips’ journey to Baltimore is atypical, starting with his high school days at Grenada and continuing with his college years at EMCC and Mississippi State.
Phillips didn’t blossom as a football player until his senior year at Grenada, so he went the junior college route to gain experience and attract Division I suitors. He played at EMCC (Scooba, Miss.), a junior college powerhouse, during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, with the Lions losing a total of two games during that time. Those years were chronicled in the first and second seasons of the Netflix hit series “Last Chance U.”
The documentary largely tells the stories of players who got sidetracked at their first Division I stops and go to a junior college — Independence Community College in Kansas is the subject of the show’s third and fourth seasons — to reestablish themselves so they can get another shot with a Division I program. But for Phillips, EMCC was his choice more because he needed a first chance than anything else. (The same can be said for Za’Darius Smith, who played for the Ravens from 2015-2018 after attending EMCC from 2011-2012.)
Prior to committing to football, Phillips preferred basketball and music; he can play the piano in addition to the trumpet. His father, James, is a pastor, so Phillips was raised in the church, making the drums and keyboard second nature for him.
“I was just never into it,” Phillips said of football. “I told some of the coaches during the draft process, I told them I felt football was stupid — just a whole bunch of grown men just hitting each other. That was just being in my immature mindset.”
Mike McGee, a former assistant basketball coach at Grenada, changed that mindset during Phillips’ junior year in 2013.
“He was like, ‘God gave you music. That’s going to be with you for your life, but you should do something with your size,'” Phillips said. “Then like two weeks later he passed [of a heart attack], and that kind of stuck with me. So I was just like, ‘You know what, I feel like this is a confirmation from God to give this a go.’ Next thing you know, I like pushing people around.”
When Stephens saw Grenada play in 2014, the trumpet player from the previous year was indeed pushing people around. Stephens noticed not only how big Phillips was but that he could move. He recruited Phillips to EMCC and had him play left tackle. Phillips didn’t play much for the Lions in 2015, but that changed in 2016.
Stephens said Phillips’ work ethic was what allowed Phillips to take the next step.
“You just saw him every single day, his work ethic of coming out early, working on his stances, working on his kicks, working on the little things,” said Stephens, who was also Phillips’ position coach at EMCC. “His work ethic, period, is what’s gotten him, along with his size, to where he is. You see so many kids who came through. They take things for granted. This cat does not do that.”
In “Last Chance U,” viewers get to know players who are working to get their academics in order so they can continue their football careers at a Division I school en route to what they hope is an NFL career. Thus, one of the stars of the first two seasons of the show was former EMCC academic adviser Brittany Wagner, who was tasked with making sure players stayed on track in the classroom so their long-term options remained open.
That wasn’t a problem for Phillips, who ended up majoring in human development and family sciences at Mississippi State and wants to be an occupational therapist for special needs children in the future. He was also selected to the 2020 National Football Foundation Hampshire Honor Society for his work in the classroom throughout his college days.
But at EMCC, Phillips still struck up a friendship with Wagner, as did others on the team. Players’ interactions with Wagner were among the more memorable scenes of the first two seasons of “Last Chance U.”
“He was going to make it with or without me. I don’t know that I really had that much of an impact on him academically,” Wagner said of Phillips. “He’s a really smart kid. But he was in there all the time because I think it was a place where they felt safe and where they bonded as teammates. And two, I think I was kind of the mother hen. There were opportunities where they would come in there and vent their frustrations or struggles or fears where we could just talk honestly and openly and they could get it out.”
Next for Phillips was Mississippi State, where he truly became an NFL Draft prospect. He redshirted in 2017, played in all 13 games in 2018 and started all 13 games at left tackle in 2019. The Ravens have two high-end tackles in Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., but they have an opening at right guard due to Marshal Yanda’s retirement and an unsettled situation at center due to Matt Skura’s recovery from knee surgery.
Baltimore will likely ask Phillips to kick inside to guard and compete for Yanda’s vacated spot in training camp. (Phillips said teams viewed him as a guard at the Senior Bowl anyway.) Veteran D.J. Fluker, second-year man Ben Powers and rookie Ben Bredeson (Michigan) will also compete for that right guard position.
Phillips thinks the Ravens’ run-first system — they accumulated 596 carries last year, 98 clear of the second-place San Francisco 49ers — is perfect for him.
“I knew they had four picks in the third round,” Phillips said. “I knew the offensive scheme, how they were a running-dominant offense and just knowing where I came from, Mississippi State, was also a dominant run system, I was just like, ‘Wow, they’ve got this last pick [of the third round]. I think this might be it.’ Lo and behold, I looked at my phone and it was an unknown number that said Baltimore at the bottom.”
Phillips is joined on the Ravens by defensive end Chauncey Rivers, his teammate at EMCC in 2016 and at Mississippi State from 2017-2019. Rivers, who had 43 tackles and five sacks as a senior, was signed as an undrafted free agent.
Baltimore will be the first stop for Phillips outside of Mississippi, but Wagner says the offensive lineman known as “Big Country” will never forget where he came from even as he embarks upon his professional career.
“He loves his home state. He’s loyal to his home state. He’s a country boy, honestly,” Wagner said. “He will wear cowboy boots around Baltimore, Md., don’t you worry. And he just knows who he is, which I think is a really special quality. He knows exactly who he is. He’s proud of it and he should be. He’s got a great heart.”
This story was written using interviews on Glenn Clark Radio with Phillips (April 27), Wagner (April 28) and Stephens (April 30). To hear more from Phillips, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics