When Dante Phillips was denied admission into the University of Florida after initially being cleared by the NCAA, Tennessee fans took to the message boards clamoring for the Vols to inquire about acquiring the defensive lineman.
Less than two weeks later, what UT fans thought was a pipe dream became a reality when the 6-foot-6, 330-pound lineman from Venice (Fla.) signed his scholarship papers with Tennessee on Wednesday. Phillips -- who is the No. 120-ranked overall player by Rivals and No. 213-ranked player by 247 Sports in the 2012 class -- gives the Vols an immediate-impact possibility on the line for this upcoming season. He is a massive, disruptive force who switched allegiances and who now holds a major grudge against one of UT's major rivals -- the Gators.
Phillips' immediate eligibility is barring any additional snags with the NCAA and UT admissions department, of course, but several outlets reported Phillips' commitment, and Phillips himself told Jimmy Hyams on Knoxville's Sports Animal radio station Wednesday that Derek Dooley told him he'd be admitted to UT. That hasn't happened officially yet, but UT is very optimistic and so is Phillips that this is going to get done.
After myriad admissions issues in the past few years [see Eddrick Loften, for one], this would be a major victory for Dooley, athletic director Dave Hart and the UT football program.
Phillips' signing caps a whirlwind few days. When he was denied admission to UF, he and his stepfather took to Twitter to voice their shock and displeasure with the university and the entire process. Then, Phillips' stepfather was quoted as being excited about the University of Miami's interest in his son and expecting that Phillips would wind up there following the Florida fiasco.
Shortly after, the Vols contacted Phillips to notify him of their interest. Phillips visited Western Kentucky first, concerned about finding a spot on a major program's roster and fulfilling his dream of playing in the SEC. But once he made it onto campus in Knoxville and UT coaches assured him they thought they'd be able to get him into school, his tweets started flying, and it was clear he wanted to call UT home.
Still, he left Knoxville without giving any sort of pledge and was expected to visit Miami this weekend before making a final decision at the beginning of next week. He couldn't get the Vols off his mind, though, and he decided to make his commitment official. His stepfather said earlier today that Tennessee is where Phillips "wanted to be."
There has been rampant speculation on why UF flagged Phillips after the NCAA cleared him initially [none of which will be repeated here because of a lack of confirmation], and UT knows all about issues with the university clearing a commitment. But that didn't stop Phillips from being shocked and disappointed last Monday to have his original dream of playing for the Gators ripped away.
"Everything on my NCAA Clearinghouse website has been cleared. I'm cleared. I should be able to go to any school in the country. I just know that Muschamp told me that admissions wouldn't admit me. I'm not sure how. I'm not sure why." "As soon as they called me I wrote about seven coaches on Facebook, but most of them haven't written me back yet," Phillips said. "Some of them have. Miami is one of the schools that is showing a lot of interest right now. They are fighting to get me in in August, but I'm not sure. I haven't made a commitment to anyone right now. I'm still open, but it's going to be hard because most of the big schools have already taken a full class.
"Now I'm just struggling trying to find a spot on somebody's roster. I worked my butt off trying to get these offers, but now I can't even pick and chose where I want to go because it's so late in the process."
The Gators' loss is Tennessee's gain. If the Vols can get Phillips into school, they will have gotten three of Rivals.com's top five defensive tackle prospects from last year's class who signed with SEC programs. Georgia's Jonathan Taylor is the top DT who signed with an SEC school, Phillips will be second, Daniel McCullers third, Alabama's Davlin Tomlinson fourth and UT's Danny O'Brien fifth. Only a couple of years ago, the Vols couldn't even convince a two-star defensive tackle to come to Knoxville.
Phillips was also ranked the No. 110 player overall by ESPN and his signing gives the Vols the best defensive line class in the conference for 2012.
Phillips provides UT an option who can play right away either inside or out. Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri told Phillips on his trip that he'd love for him to play between 290-300 pounds as the perfect size for a defensive end in the 3-4 scheme. With Phillips being around 330 pounds now, he may give UT some beef at nose guard this season if he contributes. Or, he may just go ahead and play outside if he can get into shape.
One thing is certain: Talents like this have been few and far between for the Vols over the past few years on the defensive line, and it's absolutely unheard of to get an immediate contributor five months after National Signing Day. To say that Phillips has the potential to be dominant is an understatement. He blew up U.S. Army All-American practices last year, and he has an incredibly bright future for a team that desperately needs impact difference-makers along the front. He possesses the ability to be a relentless pursuer off the edge, has elite strength, great speed for his size and has gained more than 65 pounds in the past 16 months.
With McCullers, Darrington Sentimore and Maurice Couch, Dooley has proven he can beat the JUCO bushes for top-shelf defensive line talent, and now the trio of Trent Taylor, O'Brien and Phillips gives UT some depth for the future.
This is a major pickup. Hopefully, everything will check out academically, and Phillips will be in orange when fall practice starts.