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Thursday, June 20
The Indiana Daily Student

sports football

How Phillip Dunnam became Indiana football’s “diamond in the rough”

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You never get a second chance to make a first impression – but Indiana sophomore safety Phillip Dunnam is proof there’s often more than meets the eye. 

“When we first got here, me and him rode from the airport together with his mama,” senior safety Louis Moore said. “I would try to talk; he wouldn’t even talk to me. He was shy.” 

At the time, Dunnam was a 17-year-old moving nearly 1,200 miles away from home. Bloomington was new to him, as was nearly everybody on the Hoosiers’ roster. But Dunnam broke out of his shell, first with Moore and later the rest of the team. 

“I think we got to practice and I’m the only person he knew, I’m the only person he’d seen, so he finally started talking to me,” Moore said. “He done came a long way talking wise.” 

In a sense, the relationship between Moore and Dunnam is a microcosm of the latter’s first 15 months on campus. He arrived quiet and wiry; Indiana saw potential but knew he needed physical and mental development. 

Now five games into his second season in Bloomington, Dunnam is tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions with three. He ranks second on the Hoosiers in tackles with 35, trailing only sixth-year senior linebacker Aaron Casey. 

Dunnam’s rapid ascension from sparse contributor – he made just five tackles as a freshman – to one of college football’s biggest ballhawks has been one of the most prominent stories of Indiana’s season. But it’s far from surprising to those around him. 

Indiana head coach Tom Allen and defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri both pointed out Dunnam led the Hoosiers in takeaways during fall camp, setting the stage for his breakout sophomore season. 

Allen knew Dunnam, once put into a college weight room and nutrition program, could evolve into a contributor. His success at North Miami Beach High School had hinted at something great. 

Despite earning all-county honors as a senior and ascending to 4-star status, he only had three Power 5 offers: Indiana, Florida State University and Syracuse University. 

“I felt like we got a little bit of a diamond in the rough that wasn't maybe recruited at the level that I thought he should have been,” Allen said. “And that was to our benefit because some people overlooked him.” 

Part of what drew Allen to Dunnam is his background as a high school receiver. When the Hoosiers extended an offer to Dunnam in the summer entering his senior year, he was coming off a campaign in which he caught 42 passes for 710 yards and 10 touchdowns. 

Allen claimed Dunnam’s experience on offense helped foster ball skills, be it tracking or making a play in the air and using his hands rather than his body to complete the catch process. Moore added route recognition as another key aspect learned through playing wideout, as he knows how he’d approach a route and can recognize similar concepts, providing a step up on other defensive backs. 

“At this level everybody can play, so you’ve got to get the advantage somewhere,” Moore said. “Phillip’s instincts are really good, that’s why he’s been getting picks. And then, with the hands, we’ve been catching passes our whole life. DBs are usually the ones who can’t catch. With us, it’s just different.” 

Dunnam has already bested since-graduated corner Tiawan Mullen’s team-high two interceptions from last year. In Allen’s tenure, only two players – Jamar Johnson and Jaylin Williams – have posted four interceptions in a season. 

Both Johnson and Williams spent time on NFL rosters after departing Indiana. Dunnam is on pace to break their record by a considerable margin, and while he isn’t draft-eligible until after next season, he’s put himself in a good position to follow in their footsteps to the professional level – and he’s still just getting started. 

“With Phillip Dunnam, I can see a lot of growth,” Casey said. “He’s a guy you can tell has grown a lot since his short time here, and there’s no ceiling for him. He’s just on the rise. I believe he’s going to be a great player.” 

Casey pointed to a play early in the third quarter of the Hoosiers’ narrow 29-27 win over Akron on Sept. 23 as an example of his point. On 4th and 7 from the Indiana 33-yard line, Zips quarterback D.J. Irons threw a deep pass with nobody in sight – except for Dunnam. What impressed Casey isn’t what Dunnam did, it’s what he didn’t do: catch the pass. 

Given a chance to intercept his second pass of the game and boost his season total to four, Dunnam watched and let it fall incomplete, giving Indiana’s offense a better field position. Casey believes this shows a step forward in Dunnam’s mindset, valuing the team over himself and offering a look at how far he’s come – and Moore agrees. 

“I’ve seen him evolve a lot,” Moore said. “The picks have always been there, but as far as a maturity standpoint, Phillip’s growing. He’s growing into his role, growing into himself, growing into his body and it’s good to see because Phillip’s only 19.” 

Dunnam’s skill set has meshed well with first-year defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri, who spent last year around several talented defensive backs at Ohio State. Shortly after arriving in Bloomington, Guerrieri put on the film. Dunnam popped. 

“You can see the talent,” Guerrieri said. “He’s got length, range, athleticism, ball skills. What needed to improve is the consistency, and he’s earned that. Not a guy that was a starter at first, but he’s earned that because he’s been consistent at practice. The performance doesn’t surprise me because it’s what happens at practice.” 

Away from football, Casey describes Dunnam as personable, accountable and someone who likes to be around his teammates, far from the shy Dunnam that once rode silently from the airport with Moore. On the gridiron, Allen believes Dunnam is one of the Hoosiers’ most talented defenders. 

Allen knew with Dunnam’s instincts and physical tools, there was plenty of talent and upside to work with. Lofty expectations arose – and Dunnam hasn’t disappointed. 

“He's on schedule to me,” Allen said. “He's still got to work on a lot of things to get better, but he's making game-changing plays for us. When you get takeaways, it's how you win games. It's the reason we won the game (against Akron).” 

From his unheralded recruiting process and silent arrival on campus to now, playing at such a high level that he simply can’t be ignored, Dunnam has already had quite the storybook experience at IU. But really, the book has many more pages yet to be written – starting one interception at a time. 

“I feel like I’m going to see Phillip in the NFL one day,” Moore said. “He makes a lot of plays. His tackling’s getting better. I feel like he’s coming along. He’s just a ball player. I’m really proud of my boy.”

Follow reporters Matt Press (@MattPress23) and Dalton James (@DaltonMJames) and columnist Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) for updates throughout the Indiana football season.

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