July 15, 2012

Versatile John Phillips has chance to shine as Cowboys' backup tight end

The team has some big plans for the tight end tandem.

It's easy to see that John Phillips is way ahead of where he was a year ago.

Last summer, as the Cowboys headed to training camp, the young tight end was trying to put his faith in a surgically repaired knee. A ligament tear had kept him out all of the previous season.

This year, as the Cowboys get ready to start training camp in two weeks, the fourth-year veteran is considered a vertical threat in the passing game.

"You will get to see him running down the field more than he used to," tight ends coach John Garrett said after an organized team activity practice in June at Valley Ranch. "Now that he's the second tight end, he's going to get a lot more opportunity to play all the different spots."

The opportunity is coming to Phillips because he is the Cowboys' most experienced option behind Jason Witten, now that Martellus Bennett is gone.

But Phillips' best pass-catching days were a long time ago. At least that's what he thinks. In college at Virginia, he caught 48 passes for 385 yards and two touchdowns as a senior, the second-best season by a tight end in school history.

"That was a long time ago," he said with a laugh after the final minicamp practice in June.

But he does remember how he did it, because the Cowboys are using him the same way he was used in college.

"I did a lot of different things there, similar to here," he said. "Fullback, slot -- they moved me around. It's something I can do. I embrace it. I like doing it."

Garrett said the Cowboys want to take advantage of Phillips' versatility and his nearly identical size to Witten. Phillips is 6-foot-5, 261 pounds. Witten is 6-6, 265.

They will both block. They will both catch.

"They have the size, the athleticism, the knowledge to play both spots, so they're interchangeable," Garrett said. "There's going to be times when John's going to be blocking. Sometimes Witt's going to be blocking. We are trying to get them enough work in either role so we can be really diverse in our formation use with those guys."

Garrett expects Phillips and Witten to work even more closely together this year.

"They're good friends, and they're close teammates, and they talk a lot about different techniques and the way to block and the way they're working together on a block or on the same side on a pass pattern," Garrett said. "They certainly talk a lot and make sure they're on the same page."

Garrett said Phillips is deceptively fast, and with his size, he can be a mismatch for defensive backs. But even with that advantage, he will have to go a long way to match Witten in catches.

Witten has averaged 77 catches a season in his nine-year career. As a pro, Phillips has 22 catches total.

But Garrett said the challenge of the "promotion" hasn't fazed Phillips.

"He doesn't freak out at all. He's fine," Garrett said. 'You want me to do that? Great. I'll be ready for that. Don't worry about it. I got it.' He's just really confident. He knows his stuff. He works at it. He's in great shape. You can't wear him out."

Quarterback Tony Romo can picture Phillips as a threat.

"I think John has stepped into the role," Romo said. "He's a guy you can count on. I think he's going to have a good camp and he's going to do good things for us this year."

Phillips said he likes the idea of being a threat in the offense, but he doesn't have to be.

"I think we've got a lot of weapons on our team," he said. "I think a lot of guys can make plays. That's what you get in camp for, to make plays and to get some packages for yourself and get some balls thrown your way.

"I think anybody that has a chance to have the ball in their hands envisions catching passes, catching touchdowns. But ultimately, it comes down to winning games, and it doesn't matter who gets in there, as long as we score."

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407

Twitter: @calexmendez

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