FAYETTEVILLE — Darius Philon has no interest in reliving the details publicly.
“That’s all behind me, man,” Philon said Wednesday.
He didn’t want to talk about Alabama’s news that it wouldn’t have a scholarship available for him in Feb. 2012. He didn’t want to think about the anguish it caused during an awkward signing day press conference at his high school.
Philon didn’t want to reminisce about putting on the Crimson Tide cap to a round of applause. Or what transpired in the immediate aftermath, which eventually led to the defensive tackle signing to play at a school he hadn’t even visited.
“All of that is behind me,” Philon repeated. “I just focus on Arkansas football.”
That may be, but the topic is unavoidable this week as the Razorbacks (3-4, 0-3 in SEC) prepare for their road trip to play top-ranked Alabama (6-0, 3-0 in SEC) in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The defensive tackle, who wanted to sign with Alabama out of high school before being told late in the process he would have to gray shirt and delay his enrollment, will finally step into Bryant-Denny Stadium — as a Razorback.
That’s not all. The redshirt freshman also is sliding into the starting lineup on Arkansas’ defensive line for the first time in his career after the Razorbacks lost senior captain Robert Thomas to a season-ending injury last week.
So it’s a chance for Philon to show Alabama he was worthy of signing back in Feb. 2012 and show he’s flourishing where he landed. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is certain the redshirt freshman will be eager to make the point Saturday.
“To play Alabama this week — the team that left him hanging on signing day — I think is going to be a nice little motivation,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said on his weekly radio show. “I shouldn’t have to give a pep talk to him, I don’t think.”
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Philon joined his Vigor (Ala.) High teammate JaMichael Winston in signing with Arkansas after losing the Alabama scholarship offer and hasn’t taken long to show his potential. He redshirted in 2012, but has 18 tackles, six tackles for losses and three sacks as a reserve through seven games.
Philon’s first splash came in collecting two sacks at Rutgers. He had a career-high three tackles for losses, including a sack, against South Carolina. Bielema said Philon’s play gives the Razorbacks confidence they can produce without Thomas.
“He’s played his best football for sure in the last three or four weeks here,” Bielema said. “The world works in mysterious ways. Obviously somebody had a bigger plan to take Robert out of our lineup and deliver us Darius.”
But Bielema and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said the on-the-field performance hasn’t been the most impressive part about Philon. Both believe Philon’s maturation off the field has been key to his development.
They weren’t sure Philon wanted to be at Arkansas with the way he handled himself when they arrived on campus. Perhaps there were lingering affects from his signing day saga? Either way, Philon had to make changes if he wanted to stick around.
The Alabama native chalked his immaturity up to being away from home for the first time. Eventually, he decided to grow up and the coaches noticed.
“I saw him grow as a person,” Partridge said. “I saw him make all his tutoring appointments. I saw him going to class. I saw him reporting to me about something that maybe was a hard test. I saw him grow as a man. All that led into him growing as a football player. Then, when we came into two-a-days, that growth carried over into great focus for what he was in spring ball. So it’s been a steady growth.”
The next step is a big one. The new starter is filling in for a player who had become one of the most productive members of the team as a senior.
Partridge is confident Philon isn’t a “flash in the pan” and is eager to see what he does with his new opportunity as a starter. So are Philon’s teammates, who have watched his development since preseason practices.
“He’s coming along very well in his career here,” Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said. “I feel like he really loves to be here. He wants to be here, most definitely. So I see him at practice. He’s keying in on a lot of fundamentals. He just understands that he’s got to be a big impact in this game.”
Philon will have a lot of family watching Saturday and said it will be “lovely” to see them in the stands. He said nothing changed in his preparation for Saturday’s game, saying his reaction to getting the starting job was “keep playing harder.”
Alabama’s Nick Saban is not surprised Philon has accomplished it at Arkansas.
“We’d have loved to have him at our program here, but it didn’t work out that way for us,” Saban said, according to AL.com. “Everybody that we recruit, we want to see them do well wherever they end up going and he’s certainly done a really good job there and we’re really happy for him and his family.”
Philon insisted he was happy, too, trying to steer questions about the past into conversation about the present. He said all his “off the field drama” is over.
Philon knows he can prove it with his performance at Alabama on Saturday.
“That’s the thing. That’s all it is. Make plays,” Philon said. “I enjoy making plays anywhere I go. It landed me at Arkansas so I’m happy to be at Arkansas. … This is my family.”