INDIANAPOLIS — Off the field, Lonnie Phelps speaks with a quiet, serious demeanor. His father, Lonnie Sr., has described him as a man of few words, and his low voice makes it easy to see where that reputation comes from.
On the field, it’s not true. Lonnie Phelps Jr. might be a soft-spoken person off the field, but once the whistle blows, that’s when he’s at his loudest.
“When it’s game time, I’m more of a vocal leader,” Phelps said. “If we’re down, I’m going to be the person who’s snapping at everybody to get back our momentum. We can put the same points up that they just put on us and be the better team.
“I’ve always, always been (a vocal leader), because I don’t like losing. When it’s game time, I’m going to be the loudest mouth on the sideline.”
Despite playing for a mid-major at Miami-Ohio and a decided non-power in Kansas, Phelps didn’t experience a lot of losing in college. In three years in Oxford, the RedHawks won a MAC championship and finished above .500 every season. When Phelps moved to Lawrence, he helped turn the Jayhawks into a competitive Big 12 program, as Kansas reached its first bowl game since 2008 by getting to six wins.
“They’re turning it around, and it’s going to be a football school really soon,” Phelps said. “It’s most definitely pride that I laid a brick at Kansas and had the opportunity to go there and showcase my talent. I had the trust in the coaching staff to put me in the right position to showcase my talent.”
Making Kansas a football school might be a stretch, but Phelps’ winning mentality would seem to serve him well should he end up joining the Steelers. Mike Tomlin has famously never had a losing season in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers seem to like what they’ve seen from Phelps.
That was evident from the Steelers taking time to meet with Phelps in Indianapolis. The Steelers already worked with Phelps at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, and Phelps confirmed that he met with the team again Tuesday.
“They’ve gotten to see me dominate and play out there,” Phelps said. “We had a good conversation (Tuesday); just getting to know my personality because they’ve seen me play at the Reese’s Bowl. They’ve seen my quickness and my power, how I get off the edge.”
They’ve also seen how Phelps is a player who finishes what he starts. Kansas coach Lance Leipold took particular pride in how Phelps approached the Jayhawks’ bowl game. Not only did Phelps choose to play in the bowl against Arkansas, but he refused to come out even while suffering from severe cramps.
In part because of Phelps’ presence on the field, the Jayhawks rallied. Over the final 20 minutes, Kansas outscored Arkansas 25-0 to force overtime, only falling in triple overtime.
“I see where Lonnie’s at and the opportunities he’s getting in the Senior Bowl and the combine,” Leipold told the Topeka Capital-Journal. “It’s really a tribute to him and what he was able to do here and really throughout his career.”
Phelps expects to do more of the same as a pro, even as he hears questions about his size. Based on his special teams abilities, he’ll probably get a chance to show he can contribute something to an NFL squad. Once he does, he expects his abilities to take over.
“I’m quick at adapting to the defense, and once you show your talent on the field, you’re going to get to get in more,” Phelps said. “I’m always adapting; I’m a product of my environment.
“Seeing the way (the Steelers) coach and their coaching staff, I know I’d be a good fit.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
Measured at the 2023 NFL Combine: 6-foot-2, 244 pounds, 32 3/8 inch arms, 9 1/4 inch hands, 75 7/8 inch wingspan
2023 NFL combine results: 4.55-second 40-yard dash, 1.62-second 10-yard split, 31 bench press reps
LONNIE PHELPS SCOUTING REPORT
One of the biggest questions with Phelps was one of the biggest questions with his college team. Is he ready to take on tougher opponents? Last season, the Jayhawks started 5-0, but they won just one of their final eight games, beating a collapsing Oklahoma State. Phelps’ season had a similar trajectory: only one of his seven sacks came during the final seven games of the Jayhawks’ season.
He does not have the size expected of edge rushers at the next level, but he does offer incredible quickness to help make up for that. His 40-yard dash at the combine turned a few heads, as he ran the 40 in 4.55 seconds. His instincts and speed are assets, but he’ll need to work on building up his size if he wants to stick in the NFL.
HOW DOES HE FIT?
Special teams will help him land a job somewhere. He’s excellent on special teams coverage and a solid tackler in that role. Whether he can get on the field right away on defense is less clear. He’ll need some time to develop his strength and ability to shed blocks as an edge rusher.
The Steelers have a significant need for a special teams-first edge rusher after releasing Jamir Jones. Only Quincy Roche and Emeke Egbule are currently on the roster beyond starters T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. In addition to Jones, special teams-heavy linebackers Robert Spillane and Marcus Allen have also departed.
WHERE WILL LONNIE PHELPS BE DRAFTED?
Phelps looks like he’ll go in the sixth or seventh round, if at all, according to NFL Mock Draft Database. That’s not a knock on his ability as much as it is his size. Players like him often get overlooked on draft day, only to find their way to an NFL roster because of what they do on special teams. Then, once they’ve gotten their foot in the door, they earn their way onto the defense.
If he’s sitting there in the seventh round, or if he ends up undrafted, he’d likely be worth a flier. His skills seem like they’d translate well to the Steelers, and he likely wouldn’t require a large investment.