NASHVILLE – Kyle Philips clearly understands the philosophy of the team that drafted him.
A very productive wide receiver and punt returner at UCLA, the Tennessee Titans rookie nonetheless steered the conversation in a different direction when asked about the strengths of his game.
“I would say number one, just blocking,” Philips said, “and then just being a mismatch, going against man-to-man.”
That the 5-foot-11, 189-pound Philips mentioned blocking before anything else might sound surprising, but it does make sense on a couple of levels.
First, Philips comes from a ground-centric offense at UCLA, as the Bruins ran the football on 59 percent of their offensive plays in 2021 (22nd in the nation) and 60 percent of their offensive plays in 2020 (16th in the nation).
Second, Philips knows how much the Titans prioritize blocking at the wide-receiver position, given that Tennessee’s run-heavy offense is fueled by tailback Derrick Henry.
“What came most naturally for me (during the Titans offseason) is just the receiver support in the run game here,” Philips said. “That’s something that translated perfectly from UCLA. Maybe some teams don’t have their receivers blocking. But here we’re a big factor in the run game, so that’s something I feel like I’ve been able to just step right into and feel comfortable.”
The Titans’ hope and expectation, of course, is that Philips will be using his hands to do more than push aside defenders in the coming season.
He may make a special-teams impact even before he does so on offense, as the fifth-round draft pick returned 26 punts for 501 yards (19.3-yard average) and two touchdowns at UCLA. Philips only returned nine punts in 2021, which didn’t qualify him to rank among the NCAA’s official leaders in that category. But his 22.6-yard average was seven yards better than NCAA leader Jaylin Lane of Middle Tennessee State.
It’s no surprise that special-teams coordinator Craig Aukerman is eager to see Philips in action.
The Titans have only once in the last decade finished in the NFL’s top 10 in punt-return average. That happened last season when Chester Rogers – who’s no longer on the roster – finished ninth at 9.8 yards per return.
“Kyle brings a lot of good things for us, and the one thing we liked watching him at UCLA is when he caught the ball, he would run and get vertical,” Aukerman said. “There wasn’t a lot of dancing around, trying to make too many moves. He was just going to catch it and go upfield.”
Added Philips: “Being a returner, you don’t have a lot of time to go sideline to sideline, so you’ve just got to be one cut, make the first guy miss, read the blocks and go from there.”
Philips’ quick feet, precision route-running and ability to beat man-to-man coverage make him a natural for the slot-receiver position, where he played almost exclusively at UCLA.
The Titans would love to see the kind of productivity from the slot that Philips displayed in college. He led the PAC-12 with 10 touchdowns on 59 catches in 2021, averaging a TD every 5.9 receptions.
“Kyle’s definitely a great route runner,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “He’s got some quickness, some agility, (and I’m) getting to learn his craft as he learns our offense and sees where he fits in.
“But definitely he’s flashed for me a few times and (I’ve) seen some good things. So, I’ll definitely keep the pressure on him as he learns what we’re doing, and I think if he does that, he’ll continue to make plays.”
Philips said his challenge for training camp is to master the playbook, which will allow him to play at a faster pace.
One thing he doesn’t need to learn: the importance of blocking.
“It’s definitely something I take pride in,” Philips said. “Coming from UCLA, if you weren’t blocking, you weren’t going to be on the field. It’s something I enjoy doing. I like being able to make plays for other people.”