Freddie Phillips cannot stop smiling.
The Pelion senior has an irrepressible grin that grows wider and brighter at the thought of his future in college football.
Phillips, who is one of the highest-ranked players in the Midlands and who has been selected as one of The State's Elite 11 senior players to watch during the 2014 season, has a lot to be happy about.
He committed to North Carolina State in May, choosing the Wolfpack over North Carolina, Wake Forest, and UNC Charlotte.
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The smile envelops his face when he recalls his first varsity reception as a freshman. He remembers running his curl route, cradling the ball in his hands after making the catch, rolling 40 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
“It feels good scoring points and making everybody happy,” Phillips said.
Though he has played wide receiver, and some running back, for most of his high school career, Phillips is preparing to play in the defensive secondary on the college level.
Phillips, a two-way player for the Panthers, discovered a love of and talent for the defensive back position in his junior season.
“It was a surprise. I figured out that I could play defense last year, and really started liking defense. And now I love defense,” Phillips said, laughing.
Panthers coach Ben Freeman said although Phillips had been playing some defense for two years, it was last season when the Panthers optimized his talents on that side of the ball.
“We wanted to have our best players on the field and he’s definitely that,” Freeman said. “It took us a while to figure out where he could best fit in for us on defense. It seemed like the closer we moved him to the ball the better he did, because he likes contact. It took us a few games last year to get him into that spot and once we did, he found a home.”
Phillips posted 54 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble.
Although Pelion coaches were surprised by Phillips’ breakout performance at defensive back, no one was surprised that he garnered recruiting attention from nearly a dozen major programs.
“I knew as a freshman that he had the brain and the body to develop into a really special athlete,” Freeman said.
Phillips arrived at Pelion a 6-foot, 170-pound freshman, and Freeman saw him make a smooth transition to varsity level competition.
“He’s such a naturally gifted athlete, that a lot of it came easy for him, but he also had the work ethic to go with it where he was determined to succeed,” he said.
By the end of that season, Phillips was on the recruiting radar.
“Freshman year, I got my first (recruiting) letter and that was exciting. Then you just want more, so you work even harder and do everything that it takes, more of everything that got you that first letter,” he said.
With his college choice made, the 6-2, 195-pound Phillips is working harder for one last season at Pelion.
“I’m focusing on my backpedal more, focusing on more defense,” he said.
Although his future is on defense, Phillips will get his hands on the ball a lot for the Panthers this season.
“He’s still a weapon on offense, and we can’t afford to not have him out on the field as much as possible,” Freeman said.
He said, “I want to leave people with something to remember, so every time I touch the ball, I’m just going to try to make something special happen.”
And he will do it with a smile on his face.