Luke Phelan got his senior season for the Augustana football team off to a great start two weeks ago.
The defensive back played a stellar game in a 41-3 shellacking of Coe, helping lock down the secondary and hold the Kohawks to just 85 passing yards while coming up with two interceptions.
It was a statement game for the former Joliet Catholic prep, but he hopes it was just the first of many as he continues to play with a chip on his shoulder.
“I want more,” said Phelan. “I know that Coe is a good team, but we're going to see a lot better teams. It gets me excited to want to perform like that and continue to be better than that every single game with higher competition. It excites me, but at the same time it makes me want to work that much harder in practice.”
Phelan, whose uncle Dan was a basketball player at Augustana, has become a rock in the Viking secondary. However, his collegiate career got off to a rocky start. In fact, Augie coach Steve Bell remembered watching junior varsity games and seeing him give up big plays and wondering what Phelan's role might be in the future of the program.
“He's one of those kids, a grinder,” said Bell. “He was probably not a kid the first year or two that you felt was going to be a major contributor.”
And that led to Phelan's light-bulb moment, when that spark was lit. He remembers it well at the beginning of his sophomore season.
“I was told that I was in a rotation and had a chance to play,” he said. “The first game of our sophomore year up in New York and I ended up having to hold the clipboard the whole game and record all the defensive plays. That lit the fire under my (butt). I literally think about that game to this day.
“That's something that got me motivated my sophomore year. I came out here every single day wanted to work, wanted to beat someone out, wanted to take someone's job and show that I could play football on the varsity level.”
While he hasn't missed a varsity game in his four years, he was relegated to special team's play his first two seasons.
No defensive snaps.
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Beginning last season, he has become a guy the team relies on.
“Special teams is what made me who I am now,” admitted Phelan. “Getting that chance freshman and sophomore years getting to play and getting a taste of the hits and how big the dudes are in college football — that gives you the work ethic.”
And Bell is appreciative of that effort from a guy who may not have the prototypical football body at 5-foot-9, 180-pounds.
“But he's exceptionally good technically,” said Augie's fifth-year boss. “He understands his strengths and understands his weaknesses and is an extremely, extremely effective football player because of that.
“He doesn't have a false sense of who he is. He's not the fastest guy in the world and he's not the biggest guy in the world, but I'll tell you what, he is a damn good football player.”
Which is the result of a lot of hard work and determination.
“I had to watch more film, had to be more technical in my own technique, I had to look at the little things and watch other people's games and learn from them,” said Phelan of what it took to go from special teams player to two-year starter. “I had to do the physical work and find that motivation to push harder.”
That led to him recording the seventh-most tackles on the team last season — 29 unassisted stops among his 38 tackles. He also had two tackles for loss and a pass breakup to go with two interceptions.
Teams will shy away from his side. So does Bell.
“I hate throwing to his side in practice,” said Bell. “You just know he's going to be where he's supposed to be. He reads things out really well.”
Which is the culmination of some tough times and gritty determination to be a solid college football player.
“I'm still hungry and never satisfied,” admitted Phelan. “I was that guy who didn't start for two years and didn't see a defensive snap for two years. That's what motivates me; I find motivation in being the underdog.”