Kalif Phillips recognizes the feeling he’s had as the Charlotte 49ers’ football opener Thursday against Campbell has drawn closer.
“I feel like I’ve been taken back to high school,” said Phillips, a sophomore running back who will be one of the 49ers’ top offensive weapons when Charlotte opens its second season of football at 7 p.m. Thursday against the Camels at Barker-Lane Stadium in Buies Creek.
Phillips had a similar role at A.L. Brown High in Kannapolis, where he rushed for more than 2,500 yards in his career. As a true freshman at Charlotte last season, he led the 49ers in rushing (716 yards) and touchdowns (13) as a backup to starter Alan Barnwell.
But after Barnwell was dismissed from the team last spring, the starting job fell to Phillips. And, as he was in the football-crazed town of Kannapolis, Phillips is ready to step forward.
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“I think I’ve adapted to being the starter,” said Phillips. “Just like I adapted to it in high school. They work us hard (at Brown). They get you ready for college. So I was ready for Charlotte when I got here.”
In Phillips, the 49ers have a back who runs with a combination of speed, power and finesse.
“I would say my style is unpredictable,” said Phillips (5-foot-10, 205 pounds). “You don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll probably run past you, or I’ll run through you, or I’ll make a move on you. It wouldn’t matter to me. Whatever the best choice is at that particular time will work.”
Despite playing with an injured shoulder late in the season (on which he later had surgery), Phillips appeared to grow stronger as the 49ers’ inaugural season progressed. He had the program’s first-ever 100-yard game when he rushed for 132 yards against Coastal Carolina. He scored three touchdowns against Morehead State, one on a 50-yard run.
“He’s a great four-down back,” said 49ers running back coach Damien Gary. “We can do a lot of things with him without having to (substitute) him out. He’s got speed, power, the ‘shakes.’ He makes life easy for us in the running-back world.”
Phillips got his start in the running back world at A.L. Brown, one of the state’s iconic programs and where he played for two seasons for coach Mike Newsome.
“I use Khalif as an example around here all the time,” said Newsome. “He’s a guy who knows how to find the switch. Off the field, he’s as nice as can be, easy going, fun to be around. But he knows where that switch is. He’s a monster on the field. Not a lot of kids his age can find that, can get to college and excel early.”
Phillips was a high school teammate of Virginia receiver Keeon Johnson, who had 20 receptions for 282 yards in 2013, the most receiving yardage for a true freshman for the Cavaliers since 1999.
“Kalif and Keeon are both strong and fast, which is something we emphasize here with our strength and conditioning program,” said Newsome. “They were ready as freshmen when most aren’t.”
Newsome also said that the popularity of his program in Kannapolis has prepared Phillips for life under the spotlight as a college football player.
“He’s probably not going to find himself in a situation where he was more popular than when he was here,” said Newsome. “I remember him staying after games and shaking hands with kids on the other side of the fence, just hundreds of them it seemed. And if you could sell a Kalif Phillips jersey around here like an NFL jersey, it would sell out in a few minutes. If you went out and printed up some No. 17 jerseys from his high school career and his No. 3 jersey at Charlotte, his high school jersey would sell a ton more.”
Phillips’ senior season at Brown came one year before the 49ers’ first on the field. But Phillips committed to the 49ers anyway, capping his high school career with a 351-yard, seven-touchdown performance against Cedar Ridge and an appearance in the Shrine Bowl.
“Our program was just getting started and Kalif was getting heavily recruited,” said Charlotte recruiting coordinator Phil Ratliff. “We hit it off with him and stayed on him because he was getting a lot of big attention. Some kids want to go away and not be a part of a new program. Kalif wanted to stay and be a part of starting something special.”
Phillips eventually chose Charlotte over Appalachian State, Elon and Western Carolina.
Phillips has made himself at home on Charlotte’s campus, which is just over the Mecklenburg-Cabarrus county line from Kannapolis. And he has also found a comfort level with his 49ers teammates, especially the offensive line and quarterback Matt Johnson.
“I love having him back there,” said Johnson. “We’re on the same wavelength. I can say things to him and he can say things to me that keeps the offense running smoothly.”
It’s all part of a role that Phillips embraces. He said he would have been disappointed if he had been redshirted this season, a move contemplated by 49ers coach Brad Lambert that would have allowed Phillips three years of eligibility remaining when Charlotte moves up to Conference USA in 2015. That possibility went out the window with Barnwell’s dismissal.
The 49ers need Phillips and they need him now.
“Kalif gives us a real sense of security, to have that ‘bell cow,’ ” said Gary, the running backs coach. “If we need a yard or two or need someone to break a long one, we hand the ball to No. 3. He’ll be ready to tote it.”