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July 10, 2013

Program Builders: Phillip Tanner


Fourteen years ago, Middle Tennessee was an independent school beginning its first season as a Division I football program. The fan base was filled with hope and optimism as well as anxiety and fear.

There have been a number of rough patches along the way: attendance issues, administrative changes, countless coaching changes, and a whole host of other growing pains. In spite of all of those things, the Blue Raiders continued to deliver a respected product on the field. As of July 1 of 2013, their efforts paid off - Middle Tennessee is now a full-fledged member of Conference USA.

How did the program rise this far? There's a lot of different ways to answer a question like that, but the majority of it falls on the players - players like Phillip Tanner.

Recruiting analysts and fans, alike, use the term "Program Builder" a lot. But what does that even mean? It is a term that can be thrown around loosely to any four or five-star recruit who has the size of a prototypical NFL player, but a program builder is not just all about the numbers on the field or the paper - it is about the intangibles that an athlete possesses.

A program builder lays the foundation by coming to the school and playing at an all-conference level all while taking the program to new heights. More importantly, they find a way to give back to the school. Program Builders are measured not only by their skills, but by their character and by their heart. Phillip Tanner is a Program Builder.

One of the reasons why Middle Tennessee is in Conference USA is because of players like Phillip Tanner.

With all that said, I sought after Mr. Tanner, now a member of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, to get his thoughts on the program that he cares so much about. After speaking with Tanner, he attributes all of his success, both personally and professionally, to his time at Middle Tennessee.

Check out our conversation below:


What do you think about the transition to Conference USA?

"Man, I am excited about it. It just shows the all of the hard work that I have put into it, that coach Stock has put into it, and all the other guys I have played with since 2006."

What's your most memorable game?

"My most memorable game was the Louisville game my sophomore year when we played on ESPN. That was the game that gave me the confidence as a running back. I came in as a running back, but a lot of safeties got hurt so I went and played defense. So pretty much my rookie year was my sophomore year, and that game gave me the confidence (that) I can play on this level. I rushed for like 150 yards on like nine carries and three touchdowns. I would think that would be my most memorable game."

What players from the current team(s) have you befriended? You seem reach out to a fair share of them.

"Man, Logan Kilgore. I am close with Benny (Cunningham). Of course we got Amos here in Dallas, so I am grabbing him and trying to be a mentor to him. As far as the team goes, I try to keep Logan under my wing as far as giving him advice. I let him know the things NFL QB's do and help him with understanding the game."

How about from your playing days at Middle? Who do you still keep up these days?

"I keep in touch with Jamari Lattimore, Rod Issac, Erik Walden, Norm (Norman Washington), Bradley (Robinson), and Roy Polite."

How did coach Stock and Middle Tennessee, as a program, prepare you for the NFL?

"Coach Stock is a great guy. Just his advice on how to work, how to be a man off the field, how to get to meetings before anyone else, how to stay late, and how to take notes in meetings. Tony Franklin was a big help,too. He taught me, in the passing game, how to get out on my routes and how to pick up blitzes. Of course, Willie Simmons was there he taught me those techniques and how to see plays develop. My Middle [years] were some of my greatest years of football and I really appreciate it."

Do you feel like this year is a make-or-break year for you with the Cowboys?

"No doubt, but I am not going to put any extra pressure on myself. I am just going to go out there as if it was my first year and give it all I got. Of course, with this being my third year, the game is slowing down for me - I am understanding a lot more about the NFL, the NFL game, the pace, the mental aspect of the game. Needless to say, this is a big year for me."

You've had your fair share of injuries over the years - how frustrating has that been for you?

"It's real frustrating dealing with injuries, but it's one of those things you can't control. All you can do is go out there and take care of your body the best that you can. Once you get on the field, you give it the best you got."

Does it get to a point where playing through pain becomes just second nature to you?

"That's just football period. I can't remember a season since, probably my junior year in high school, that I could go out and say I was 100 percent healthy. It's just a part of the game going out there and playing through injuries."

What is the difference between learning an NFL offense as opposed to a college offense?

"The biggest difference is the volume of it. I would go into Middle at practice on a daily basis and we'd have like three-page installs, and in the NFL, we'd have thirty-page installs. I think that's the biggest difference is just the amount of information - not only knowing your assignment, but everybody else's. You need to know what adjustments to make if it's a hot-read or if there's a blitz pickup."

What are some of the work habits you picked up from some of the veterans on the Cowboys such as Jason Witten and Tony Romo?

"Just go in every day and work. It's about never taking a day off, it's about working everyday. Just give it your all even if you are not 100 percent. If you are 80 percent, give it all 80 percent. One of the things Jason Witten told me when I first got to Dallas was to be on the positive end of the highlight tape; every time you go out there, you want to remind them why you should be on this team and why you are in the NFL."

What's it like playing for a coach like Jason Garrett? What kind of coach is he?

"He reminds me of Stock - he's a players coach. He is real detail-oriented, that's his biggest thing - paying attention to detail. He feels like details are the thing that can help you win or can help you lose. He also believes in knowing your assignments, first and foremost. No matter how good you are, knowing your assignments is what it's about playing on this level."

People always talk about how the speed of the game is faster in the NFL compared to college, is there really that much of a difference?

"It's a lot faster from the mental aspect of the game, but physically it's not that much faster. It's about the mental aspect and knowing where to be. As far as in college ball, if I am running the ball, I can see the hole and hit it. In the NFL, if I see the hole, it is too late. I've got to have a feel for it. You have to put more trust in the offensive line, knowing that the hole is going to be there and once I make my cut, knowing it's going to be there. If I am sitting and waiting for the hole to open, I will never get to it. Just being able to slow the game down is a big key. The same way you came from high school to college with having to slow the game down, it's like the way you go into the NFL from college having to slow the game down."

You were a pretty versatile back while at MT, what are the areas in your game that you've had to adjust?

"Well, understanding blocking schemes and knowing all the places my o-line would be. I'm basically trying to get any advantage I can before and during the play."

Ok, enough about you, let's get back to MT. What is your prediction for the Blue Raiders this year?

"I am telling all these folks we are gonna win it. I like the running back Parker - he should have a good year. (William) Pratcher is coming back and he should be well. I heard about a new receiver they had at Middle and it sounds like they will be good [offensively]. On defense, I see a big year for Kenneth Gilstrap. I am excited for them to go in and make a huge impact. We had a high confidence level and that continued from the New Orleans Bowl victory (moving) forward. I hope they continue that level of confidence [that they found last year]."

Are you going to be able to make it to the Boro for any games this year?

"I am hoping to make the North Texas game, and whatever our bye week is I will be down there, for sure, to make that game. I keep up with Middle a lot on Twitter. I read updates from you guys. I remember during the Georgia Tech game, I was in a barber shop watching on the phone."

I know that games Georgia Tech were what Stock was talking about when he recruited you to Middle. He told me a number of times in the past that he told recruits they can go to school somewhere else and just be another guy or you can come here and build something. Did he give you that message?

"That's one thing that he told me. That's the thing about Stock - just getting to learn from him was great. My relationship with him is unreal. I mean, I talk to him before all my games and before I go out on the field. I just always send him a text thanking him for all he did for me, not only as a coach but as a mentor and as a father. He always told me how much he idolized Bobby Bowden and the things he did at Florida State. He came in and turned it into the program that it is now. That's kind of what Stock's mentality is here at Middle - is to turn it into a national program."

Sticking with Stock for a moment, what so you think it said about him when he turned down those big contracts from East Carolina and Memphis?

"That was my most important Stock moment ever. That beats any coaching thing he did for me, any accolade he gave me. That was the moment when I realized the decision I made to come to MT was true. All around ESPN you see the "un-loyalty" of coaches. And that's the word I use - un-loyal. I feel if you are going to sit in a kid's living room for three months out of his high school career and tell his mom you are going be there for him, and recruit this kid, you should [be there], because kids don't commit to schools, they commit to coaches. For a coach to come and then leave, well you just left that kid high and dry. When Stock turned down that money, I called him and I texted him. I told him 'I love you coach' and he texted me back, 'I love you too.' When he came back and after the season was over, I asked Stock 'what made you stay?' and he said, 'there's no way I could sit in those kids living room and tell them I wasn't going to leave and then leave.' That's just how Stock is. A lot of folks asked me after the 2-10 season if I thought he regretted his decision, and I just told everybody 'no, he will get it together.' Then, the next year, he turned right back around and had one of the biggest years in program history with the big win against Georgia Tech and he finally beat Troy and got that monkey off his back. I felt like I played that game."

What about the bowl snub after last season - did you think it was political?

"Yeah, it was about us leaving the conference. It was political. We go to Western, beat Western, and Western goes to a bowl game. That says it right there."

I think it's safe to say that most fans really appreciate what you gave to the program, and they definitely like to see you still interested and coming around.

"Well its no problem. I enjoyed it, man. That's my stomping grounds. A lot of folks ask me if I am going to stay in Dallas after I get done playing ball and I tell them 'no' - I got the family looking for a house in Murfreesboro right now as we speak."

Hopefully you have a long and fruitful pro career, but what about after ball? Have you given any thought to becoming a coach?

"Definitely. I mess with coach Stock all the time and tell him to save me a spot for when I am done and I will be there. We talk a lot about coaching and he thinks I would be a great coach. So hopefully, in the future when I am done, you will see me with a Blue Raider visor on."


As we previously mentioned, Tanner has been with the Dallas Cowboys since 2011 and made the 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent. With training camp around the corner, Tanner will be entering his third season with the team. GoMiddle.com has researched and evaluated Tanner's NFL game tape using NFL Game Rewind (Google it - it's awesome). Here are some observations about Tanner from studying his game tape:

Tanner had two games in 2011 with five or more touches. On October 23, 2011, against the St. Louis Rams, Tanner tallied six carries for 34 yards and his only professional touchdown. Tanner showed the burst that he exhibited during his time at Middle Tennessee with a particular good leg-drive on his six-yard TD run where he carried defenders four yards en route to the goal line.

Tanner's ability to quickly get north and south was apparent in this game and he seemed very decisive in his cuts even though Tanner himself says that his vision was not as sharp then as it is now.

In action against the Buffalo Bills, Tanner had 11 carries for just 29 yards. In this contest, Tanner's inexperience combined with poor blocking led to a less than productive game. The Cowboys had a bottom 10 run-blocking line in 2011, and during this game, it was readily apparent. Tanner was met in the backfield on a number of his carries, and this, in part, led to the paltry yardage total. Tanner showed decent burst when he was not being swallowed up, and again, the filmed showed that the effort was there. Tanner finished the season with 76 yards on 22 carries - good enough for a 3.45 yards per carry average - and added one touchdown.

In 2012, there were two games in which Tanner received five or more touches. When the Cowboys squared off against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens on October 14, Tanner tallied 31 yards on nine carries. Tanner looked smoother in his cuts and there were several plays where Tanner's strength allowed him to get him extra yards. For example, Tanner took the ball up the middle, just off the left side of the center, and hit the hole with immediate burst and ran through where he met middle linebacker about four yards past the line of scrimmage. The defender pulled Tanner down, but not before the physical back drove him an additional five yards for a total gain of nine yards. That linebacker was, of course, Ray Lewis. That play exemplifies why Tanner's combination of size, power, speed, and heart earned him an NFL roster spot. By the way, that play came not long after Lewis had delivered his own punishing hit on Tanner. The result of Tanner's hit was a torn triceps muscle for Mr. Lewis.

In the next game against the Carolina Panthers, Tanner posted 30 yards on 13 carries. The tape shows similar issues with line-play, but Tanner does not appear to be as decisive in his runs as he was in his previous tape, which showed a bit of regression in his play - which undoubtedly caught the eye of the Cowboys coaching staff. Tanner was limited on snaps the rest of the season, and finished 2012 with 61 yards on 25 carries with no touchdowns or turnovers.

2013 is the make or break year for Phillip Tanner. His roster spot with the Cowboys is definitely in jeopardy, especially after Dallas drafted Joseph Randle, and return running backs Demarco Murray and former North Texas standout Lance Dunbar. Tanner will likely have to beat out Dunbar for the third spot on the depth chart. Tanner appears to have all the measurables and intangibles needed to be an NFL running back. Unfortunately, opportunity is also part of the equation that makes up an NFL player, and Tanner has had a few opportunities to prove himself. In those limited opportunities, Tanner has been up and down, but has ultimately shown that he can get the job done when asked.

When you think about Middle Tennessee football since it has been in Division I, it is hard not to think about Phillip Tanner, whether it was his long touchdown scampers against Louisville, his seven-touchdown performance against North Texas, or his inspiring comeback from injury - Phillip Tanner has left an indelible mark on the Blue Raider program.


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