'It's surreal to be back': Former top recruit Jaelan Phillips finds second chance at Miami

Jaelan Phillips had something to say to the Miami defense before the Florida State game last Saturday, so he stood up, looked out at his teammates and coaches and let himself go.

He spoke forcefully and emotionally. This team saved him, made him believe in himself again, made him believe in everything he knew he could be back when he was one of the nation's top recruits in 2017. He told them how grateful he felt to be a part of this rivalry game, how humbled he felt, because a year ago, he still had no idea whether he would ever play again.

The players listened quietly, moved in ways they never expected. Teammate Bubba Bolden, one of his closest friends on the team, could especially relate given he had transferred himself, and had come back from a leg injury. "He hit the point I wanted to hit, but I never said it," Bolden said. "The way he said it, the passion he came with, you could tell he meant it. We're both blessed to have a second chance at playing football."

A few hours later, Phillips made one of his biggest plays to date -- a juggling interception as he fell to the ground off a botched reverse. He then drew a 15-yard penalty for his celebration. That did not stop him from mugging for the camera on the sideline while wearing the Turnover Chain for the first time.

Two-thousand, six-hundred miles across the country in Redlands, California, his high school coach had one thought: "He's back."

"That joy of playing football -- it's very obvious watching him on the field, he's found it again," Kurt Bruich said.

There is a balance, of course, and Phillips might have let his emotions get the best of him. On the next drive, he kicked a Florida State helmet that had come off, drawing a second unsportsmanlike penalty and automatic ejection.

"He felt awful about it," Hurricanes head coach Manny Diaz told reporters after the game. "I think it's a great teaching lesson not only for Jaelan, but for everybody else on the roster."

And Diaz knows No. 7 Miami can't afford that again this Saturday against No. 1 Clemson (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App), a game that will serve as a measuring stick for the Hurricanes and how much progress they have made toward reestablishing themselves as a perennial national championship contender.

Phillips is only three games into his Miami career, but he has played a big role in the way the culture, demeanor and chemistry inside the program has changed. If quarterback D'Eriq King has been the catalyst for the offense, Phillips has been the same for the defense in the team's 3-0 start.

"When your best players practice and play as hard as he does, it sets a standard," Miami defensive coordinator Blake Baker said. "That's something that hasn't necessarily been the case around here, especially among the older players."

The remarkable part is not that he set the standard, but that he is in the Miami locker room at all.

Nearly two years ago, Phillips had given up on football after a string of injuries ended his career at UCLA. He had enrolled at Los Angeles Community College to study music production, his biggest passion outside football, and worked at his dad's law office. He lived alone in a loft and, for the first time in his life, started to question who exactly he was now that he no longer had the one thing that defined him. He kept asking himself, "Who am I without football?"

Phillips was a natural at the game because of his long frame, deceptive speed and unparalleled work ethic. Though Phillips wanted to play receiver in high school, Bruich told him defense is where he would make his money. It took some convincing, but Phillips finally moved to outside linebacker. Phillips didn't truly buy in until midway through his sophomore year. But once he did, he was an unstoppable force and scholarship offers started pouring in too.

He chose UCLA in large part because of the relationship he developed with then-coach Jim Mora. As the No. 3 overall recruit in the ESPN 300 in 2017, Phillips says now he entered school "on my high horse" and "a little entitled," given all the recruiting hype and the spotlight that had been put on him. Reality set in earlier than anyone could have predicted.

In his third game as a true freshman, Phillips sustained a high ankle sprain, the first major injury of his football career. When he returned to play, he hurt his other ankle, then sustained a concussion. He ended up playing in seven games, with four starts, and told himself he would work harder than ever in the offseason for a breakout sophomore year.

But then came the injury that ultimately changed the course of his life, in January 2018. Phillips' parents had given him a moped to help him more easily get around the Westwood area. He was in the bike lane, close to his apartment, with traffic in the two lanes next to him at a complete standstill. Phillips says he was riding about 30 mph when a car unexpectedly pulled into the bike lane without putting on a turn signal.

He slammed on the brakes, but the sudden change in momentum threw him into the air and over his moped. Phillips hit the side of the car and rolled onto the sidewalk, stunned. He glanced down at his legs, and they were fine. His arms seemed fine. Then he glanced down at his wrist, bent in what Phillips describes as a "horrible angle."

The driver stopped briefly to make sure he was OK, then left the scene. Phillips called his roommate to take him to the hospital. Only a few weeks into winter conditioning, Phillips knew he would be out indefinitely.

"It was almost like I had gone through a really bad breakup and I was trying to move on, and [I was] going to dedicate my life to music, but football kept coming back to me." Miami DE Jaelan Phillips on temporarily being away from football

"It was a bad situation overall," Phillips said. "All the anticipation was building for the season and then boom: off-the-field injury. I was like, 'This is really unfortunate.' It was like a roller coaster, coming in on a high and then injured and a low, then coming back up and then boom, a low."

Phillips broke his left wrist and needed multiple surgeries, including one that removed three bones because of ligament damage. He was able to start the first game of the 2018 season, but even then, he played in excruciating pain because the small bones in his wrist were rubbing against one another constantly. He sustained another concussion in his fourth game, and UCLA doctors declared him out for the season in mid-October.

At that point, Phillips said the doctors told him it might be best to medically retire. Phillips thought about all the injuries he had been through, and the recent coaching change to Chip Kelly did not put him any more at ease. He was clearly unhappy, so he agreed it would be best to step away from the game.

"I had a lot of expectations, both for myself and from people, and getting those injuries ... as an athlete, our body is our asset, so when your body starts failing you, it's a weird feeling. It derails what you've got going on," Phillips said.

Phillips thought he would be OK without football if he focused on his music and lived a 9-to-5 life. He quit working out, too.

Then, he went on a holiday cruise with his family. While he was gone, Mora had called and floated an idea that remained stuck in the back of Phillips' mind: Are you sure you're done with football?

"It was almost like I had gone through a really bad breakup and I was trying to move on, and [I was] going to dedicate my life to music, but football kept coming back to me," Phillips said. "I didn't know what to do with myself. That was my whole identity. I didn't really feel like myself. I wasn't the Jaelan Phillips that everybody knew, and so when Jim Mora hit me up, it was almost like, 'This is a little bit of a sign. Maybe I should pursue this again.'"

In February 2019, Phillips announced he would transfer to Miami. But even then, he had no idea whether he would play again. Neither did Miami, given his medical history. When he arrived on campus that summer, Phillips was virtually unrecognizable, especially compared to his arrival on the UCLA campus as a ballyhooed freshman.

Phillips was down to 225 pounds, from his UCLA playing weight of 245. No one on campus or inside the locker room knew who he was, other than a transfer who had yet to live up to outside expectations put on him as an 18-year-old. He approached the situation with clear trepidation. Miami coaches wanted to focus on getting Phillips acclimated to his new surroundings first before they would worry about a weight-room regimen and rekindling his passion for football. The Phillips that was seen a few weeks ago smiling and celebrating on camera was not the Phillips anyone saw in those early months.

"He was very, very quiet," Baker says. "He did not have that sense of belonging. He'd been through so much off the field, he really didn't know if he loved the game of football anymore because he'd been away from it, so our biggest priority was not to rush him back into it, not to make him feel that's the only reason we were bringing him here."

Phillips started out with the developmental lift group, reserved for freshmen and newcomers, at 5:45 every morning. Bolden, who transferred to Miami from USC and helped get Phillips to consider the Hurricanes, watched how his friend approached the situation. Phillips and Bolden met during recruiting camps and played in the 2017 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Because they chose Pac-12 schools in Los Angeles, it was easy for them to stay in touch. Rather than big-time anyone, Phillips encouraged the young players around him, setting an early example for others to follow.

Within a few months, Phillips had added 40 pounds to his frame. Bolden watched Phillips' body transform. "I used to pick his brain and ask, 'Bro, how are you getting so big, so fast?' He told me he could never let himself get hungry, so he ate full meals all the time and drank a lot of water. I said, 'I need to do what you're doing.'"

Phillips ate roughly 260 grams of protein in a day to bulk up. He was not cleared to participate in practice that fall, and he says it was not until this past January that he truly felt ready to play football again.

"The biggest thing for me coming into Miami, people knew who I was coming out of high school, and that is not what I was, and so it was really hard for me to function," Phillips said. "I had a lot of social anxiety when it came to that. I had a lot of identity issues.

"To be honest, what's even harder than being thrust into that position of fame as a five-star No. 1 recruit is dealing with it when it all gets taken away, and that's what happened when I stopped playing. When I'm playing football, people are talking about me on Twitter, people are following me on Instagram. I'm posting pictures of me playing football, when I would walk down the street sometimes either back home or in Westwood, people would know who I was, and then I stopped playing football. Nobody's talking about me anymore. I'm not posting anything on Instagram. I kind of fell off the face of the earth in terms of the social aspect.

"That was hard to deal with because I felt like my identity was attached to all of that, so when it got stripped away, I felt like my identity got stripped away. When I lost all that weight, I felt like I was a shell of what I was before. I didn't get all my confidence back until started performing again."

That came March 1, the first day of spring practice and the first time Phillips put on his Miami uniform. He lined up as a defensive end.

"When we saw him this spring, we were like, 'Oh my gosh,'" Baker said. "We did not know what we had, I'll tell you that much. As a staff, we had no idea what kind of monster this dude is."

After that first day, Baker decided to find Phillips' old high school clips. In the first one he watched, Phillips returned a punt for a touchdown.

Once the team returned together for fall practices, coaches saw even more. Defensive line coach Todd Stroud said early in the fall camp that Phillips is in the 99th percentile of any player he has ever coached in terms of his physical attributes. Baker says, "If you were to create a player in a video game, you'd create Jaelan Phillips at defensive end. He's 6-5, he's 265, 270 pounds. I'm willing to guess he will run easily in the 4.6s. He's going to test out of this world from a combine standpoint. Then, from a mental aspect, he's one of the smartest players I've ever been around. The cherry on the top is with the effort he plays with."

Baker compares Phillips to NFL standouts Nick and Joey Bosa and says, if Phillips stays healthy, "he's a no-brainer first-round pick."

But before Phillips gets that far, he has more to do at Miami. Starting Saturday.

"It's surreal to be back," Phillips says. "A year and a half ago, when I was living by myself in an apartment in L.A. going to a junior college taking music production classes, I didn't think I'd have the opportunity to do what I'm doing again. Being here, thinking about the time I've spent and how hard it's been, it means a lot for me to be back on the field again. It drives my game, it drives my passion.

"It's just the best feeling to be able to do this again."