*In the weeks leading up to the 2008 NFL Draft (April 26-27), BR.com will offer a look into the top prospects by position. This week, defensive backs take the spotlight, with Kenny Phillips of Miami up next. *
Considering his pedigree, Kenny Phillips is feeling a lot of pressure. The former Miami standout is the next in a long line of Hurricanes safeties that rode tremendous success at the amateur level to a first-round draft status.
The Ravens' own Ed Reed, selected 24th overall in 2002, and late Washington Redskin Sean Taylor (fifth overall in 2004) both turned out to be Pro Bowlers.
New England Patriot Brandon Merriweather - the 24th pick in last year's draft - may be close after starting as a nickelback in the Super Bowl.
In a 2008 class relatively light at the safety position, Phillips hopes he can maintain the first-round institution of "Tha U."
"It would be real good [to be selected in the first round]," he said at the NFL Combine. "I don't want to be the one who messes up the tradition. Nobody wants to be the one who messes it up."
Despite the added pressure of being this year's standard-bearer along with highly-rated defensive end Calais Campbell, Phillips embraces his Hurricane lineage.
He counts Reed, a tireless study of the game, among his mentors. The 2003 NFL Defensive Player of the Year gave Phillips some pointed advice to guide his fledgling career. It seemed to have taken root, as Phillips earned a reputation in Coral Gables as a film nut that is relentless in his preparation.
"I spend so much time in the film room," Phillips explained. "I got that trick from Ed Reed. When I first got there me and him talked a whole lot, and he told me to stay in the film room."
Phillips spent two of his three years at Miami sharing the secondary with Merriweather, who took the underclassman under his wing as soon as he stepped on campus.
"When I first came in he was the one that taught me the plays," he said of his former teammate. "He let me stay with him in the summer so I didn't have to go back and forth. He really took me under his wing and taught me everything I know. I talk to him every week."
Following an 82 tackle year when Phillips was voted All-ACC and a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award (given to the nation's top defensive back), those conversations focused more and more on the draft.
The 21-year-old was advised by Miami coach Randy Shannon to remain in school if he wasn't projected to be a top-15 pick, but Merriweather offered a different take.
"He just told me make sure it's the right decision for you," Phillips said. "Don't do it just because of the money situation or anything like that. Just make sure that you feel in your heart it's the right decision."
At 6-foot-2, 212 pounds, Phillips possesses the size to deliver big hits and blanket tight ends and slot receivers over the middle. The 4.48-second 40 he ran at the Combine showcased speed necessary to range the entire field.
Will all that be enough to continue the Miami legacy? A meager two-interception performance in 2007, coupled with the 'Canes' disappointing 5-7 record, have many draft analysts slotting Phillips on the cusp of the first round.
"The way I played speaks for itself," Phillips counters. "Even though I didn't have a good season, I feel I performed well this season."
Wherever the young safety ends up, he is eager to help those left behind at Miami. The assistance that Reed and Merriweather gave to a freshman Phillips should be paid forward.
In Phillips' eyes, Miami's tradition of first-rounders starts with a tradition of alumni leadership.
"We're a family," he commented. "As soon as I got [to Miami] Ed Reed wasted no time coming to talk to me, sharing tips with me because he wanted to see me succeed. He wanted to see me be successful.
"That's the brotherhood we have at the University of Miami."