Cam Phillips always played second-fiddle to fellow wide receiver and member of Virginia Tech’s 2014 recruiting class, and now Miami Dolphin, Isaiah Ford. Listed at 6’0” and 202 lbs., Phillips was always tabbed as more of the possession receiver (Though Ford was pretty good at that himself), and Ford, listed at 6’2” 195 lbs., the more prototypical No. 1 WR, especially given his ability to be a deep threat and go up for/bring down jump balls. Ford was the more highly-rated of the two prospects by all but one (Rivals) of the four major recruiting services (I’m doing Scout a huge favor here), and led the Hokies in receiving in all three of his seasons in Blacksburg. He also is the only receiver in Virginia Tech football history to top 1,000 yards in a season, which he did each of the last two years.
All along it was assumed, once Ford was one of three Hokies to declare for early entry to the 2017 NFL Draft, that given the Hokies offensive scheme under Justin Fuente, and the need for receiving production (As in losing Ford and Hodges, Tech lost 2-of-their-top-3 receivers from the past three years), that Phillips would usurp Ford atop the record books. Given the extra year to do so, however, it almost seemed that it would cheapen Phillips’ accomplishments, since through three years, Ford was the better receiver (Which is no knock to Phillips, considering the stats suggest that Ford was the best WR in school history). But Phillips’ 2017 is off to such a rousing start that it’s worth examining whether his inevitable ascension to the top of the record books as Tech’s all-time leading receiver is Roger Maris’ 61 home runs (Now topped by men with asterisks next to their name, at least in the court of public opinion) to Babe Ruth’s 60 (Ruth achieved his record in 154 games, the standard length of a regular season in his time, to Maris’ 162).
His performance against East Carolina this Saturday (A school record 14 receptions for 189 yards and 3 touchdowns) has already led to him being named ACC Receiver of the Week (And his quarterback ACC Rookie of the Week, though his rookie status seemed a convenient way to allow him to be recognized, but allow Clemson junior Kelly Bryant to be the Quarterback of the Week, despite a lesser stat line, albeit against stronger competition), and many more weekly honors are likely to pour in. As Gobbler Country Associate Editor Jay Johnson pointed out in a post Sunday afternoon, Phillips now leads the country in receiving yards (417 yards on 27 catches to be exact), something that has almost surely never been done at any time in program history.
Ford always impressed Hokie fans with his gaudy numbers and aerial display, but to be honest, the stretch that Phillips is on right now is probably even greater than anything Ford did in his career at Tech. Over his last 7 games (Starting with the Notre Dame game last year), Phillips has pulled in 57 receptions for 914 yards and 8 TDs (An astounding pace of 114 receptions, 1,828 yards and 16 TDs over a full 14-game season). As a result, he now stands just 18 receptions, 487 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns behind Ford for the Hokies’ all-time mark, the last of which seemed nigh unreachable when Phillips entered said Notre Dame game a year ago with 7 career scores.
But what in specific is Phillips doing to achieve those results that he didn’t do before? The answer: well, several things. Most apparent (And most important to his ability to transition, at least functionally) to the outside, has been Cam’s ability to position himself for and win jump balls. He has also risen on a number of uncontested catches that would have sailed high if he didn’t perfectly time and high-point the football (Scouts will call this a lost art amongst receivers the same way basketball scouts talk about the death of the mid-range 2). Simply adding those catches will endear him to his quarterback and coaching staff, and he has shown the ability to elevate to do so (Several instances come to mind in the West Virginia game). He did compete in the high jump in high school, and it’s clear that he has a decent vertical. It will be fun to see how he tests in this regard at the NFL Combine next year.
Secondly, it appears that Phillips has improved his speed. Watching Josh Jackson uncork deep balls with Phillips running in behind coverage, something we’re not used to seeing from Cam (Part of that because with Ford and Bucky Hodges in the fold, the Tech coaching staff didn’t ask Phillips to fill that role, so his ability to do so was somewhat shrouded in mystery), is a delight, and it shows that Phillips, at least at the college level, has the ability to be a deep threat.
Cam is also running a more sophisticated route tree this year, as evidenced by his first three games. In 2016, Phillips was used as more of a gadget player, running the ball 30 times out of the slot, and seeing innumerable wide receiver screens (If you followed Gobbler Country on Twitter during the Stinespring/O’Cain years, you know my lack of affection for that play) and sit routes (Not the sit that actually means wheel. We call that the wheel. It has its own name). So far in 2017, he has been crisp in his route running, and is seeing a lot more of the curl and hitch, timing routes designed to create separation (And if sold correctly and the ball is out on time, easy 7-10 yard completions for a quarterback), exploiting a cornerback’s cushion. Route running, particularly in the sense that Cam has been very good about finding the soft spot in the zone before sitting down, is something that Phillips has excelled in. But this year he’s expanded that as his role and his routes in the offense have changed.
What does this mean/has this meant for the Hokies? Well of course, so far, Cam has had a transcendent year, and even the rosiest of projections probably didn’t have him dominating the competition this much. Receiver was always going to be a sore spot for the Hokies in 2017, especially with so little depth and experience going into the year. Phillips has nearly single-handedly erased concerns about a major drop off at the position to start the season. The question, with Phillips having so dominated the catches in the passing game, is whether he’ll be able to continue at this level when he inevitably sees more double and even triple coverages going forward.
With none of Tech’s top-5 wide receivers measuring over 6’0” tall, Phillips is the small man (Relative to his position’s ideal measurables) playing like a big man, something the Hokies really needed. Not only is it indispensable to Tech’s 2017 chances, but it has moved him up the draft boards of many attentive watchers in the industry. From the NFL scouts I consulted, Phillips’ play so far this year has already moved him from a fringe-NFL prospect to the middle rounds of the draft...and we’re only 3 games into the season. If he keeps it up, Phillips will put Ford’s records well in his rearview with nary a detractor making the Maris vs. Ruth argument, and the Hokies will be better for it.