Oct. 19, 2007
By Ashley Earle
Even as a junior, defensive end Phillip Merling has become a leader and dominant force on the Clemson football team. The 6’5”, 280-pounder has come a long way from his days in Saint Matthews, SC. Through trials and tribulations, Merling has found a passion in football and has grown to be a mature man as well as an incredible football player.
So far this season, Merling has accumulated 41 tackles (second-most on the team), a team-high nine tackles for loss, and two sacks. He is also tied for the team-lead with nine quarterback pressures.
In the 2007 season-opener against #19 Florida State on Labor Day night, he had nine tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack in Clemson’s 24-18 victory. For his efforts, he was named ACC Defensive Lineman-of-the-Week, a first for Merling. However, even though those statistics were impressive, he remembers what happened before the game.
“I was a captain for the Florida State game,” said #94. “It meant a lot to me that the coaches felt I was a leader. I went out and played hard.”
Juniors are rarely named captains for games, so for Merling, it was an honor when he heard the news. Head Coach Tommy Bowden spoke highly of him after the Florida State game.
“He’s a really good player,” remarked Coach Bowden. “He was one of our captains, and we seldom have a junior captain. His work habits over the summer and preseason along with his vocal leadership on the field show that he is a hard worker. He plays like he practices. He’s a key ingredient defensively, not only as a player, but as a leader.”
In the next game against Louisiana-Monroe, Merling continued to show why he may be a future first-round draft pick. He tallied nine tackles, including two tackles for loss. A few weeks later at Georgia Tech, Merling had a career-high 10 tackles and three tackles for loss.
Merling has not had an easy route to the success he is now having at Clemson. He has had to overcome family problems and personal setbacks. Without the guidance of his uncle and position coach Chris Rumph, Merling may not have ever made it to Clemson.
A young Merling began playing Pop Warner football when he was 10-years-old. Yet football was not his only sport. He was an all-around athlete who played baseball and basketball as well as football. In fact, basketball was his favorite sport when he was younger.
Living in Saint Matthews, Merling attended Calhoun County High School. Even as a freshman in high school, Merling’s athletic talent showed. As a result, he received all-conference honors his freshman year. The following season, his team won the region title in football. Merling’s dominance on the field was a major contribution to that.
The summer before his junior year, Merling made a decision that changed his life. He was no stranger to moving around. After living with his grandmother for years, Merling and his mother moved Virginia, where he stayed until the eighth grade. Then, he moved back to South Carolina and started high school at Calhoun County High.
But after his sophomore season, Rumph, Merling’s uncle, had moved back to South Carolina to take a job as an assistant coach at S.C. State. It was then that Merling went to live with his uncle and family.
Living with his uncle was different for Merling. He had a curfew, he had to share the television with Rumph’s young son Christopher, and he had to live by the rules of his uncle and aunt.
“Moving in with my uncle brought some order to my life,” admitted Merling. “He supported me with football and he was there for me when I needed him.”
Merling received defensive MVP honors by season’s end. He was also named Calhoun County High’s Best Male Athlete, and he earned all-region, all-area, and all-conference honors. Merling was one of the best athletes to come out of Calhoun County High in a while. Things were looking up for Merling.
Nevertheless, change was once again going to occur in his life. Rumph had accepted a job at Memphis as the outside linebackers coach. His family was relocating to Tennessee, and Merling did not know if he wanted to go or not. In the end, his family decided that he needed to leave. He had found a stable home with his uncle and aunt, and their young son. But he had other ideas as well. He wanted to play Division I football, and he knew that staying with his uncle would keep him focused on that goal.
“I left (to go to Tennessee) because my family really wanted me to leave South Carolina,” stated Merling. “The competition would be stiffer and give me a better opportunity to see what it took to play Division I football.”
So, Merling moved to Tennessee with the Rumph family and attended Cordova High School. The school was much bigger than anything Merling had been used to.
“I went to a AAAAA school in Tennessee,” remembered Merling. “It was a big school with a lot of people. I wasn’t used to that in South Carolina.”
Despite the difference in schools, Merling excelled on the gridiron. The team advanced to the first round of the playoffs his senior season, and Merling recorded 20 catches for 430 yards and four touchdowns on offense. He added 34 tackles on the defensive side of the ball, including 20 solo hits and four sacks. He also had two recovered fumbles.
With stats like those, Merling received numerous accolades. He was named first-team all-state and first-team all-region. He played in the AXA Liberty Bowl All-Star game and the Tennessee vs. Kentucky All-Star game.
Merling’s dream was coming true. Division I teams, such as Clemson, Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina, were looking at the defensive end. He needed a little more work in the classroom, so he entered Fork Union Military Academy the following year in order to meet the requirements. It was a tough time for Merling, because for so long his dream was to play Division I football. And with his uncle’s support, he was even more determined to reach that dream.
“My uncle Chris has been the most influential person in my career because he just kept me going in high school,” recalled Merling. “He never gave up on me and he wouldn’t let me quit. He supported me when I was at Fork Union. He taught me that if I worked hard, I would accomplish all of my goals.”
Merling played football at Fork Union Military Academy in 2004, and with his uncle’s support and his work ethic, he became a star again. He was named team MVP after totaling 38 catches for 647 yards and five touchdowns. On defense, he had 51 tackles, five sacks, and eight pass breakups. Rivals.com named Merling the #25 prep school player in the entire nation.
Schools once again offered Merling scholarships, but he knew where he was going…Clemson.
“South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky all looked at me,” said Merling. “Other schools did too. But those schools originally wanted me to go to a junior college. Clemson was the only school that advised me to go to a prep school. They stood by me when other schools didn’t. Because of that, I knew I was going to go play at Clemson.”
Merling became a Tiger in the fall of 2005, but it was not a big adjustment for the defensive end because he had been used to new places, and the speed of the game prepared him for the college level.
“I don’t think college was a big adjustment,” remembered Merling. “I came from Fork Union, and there we played at college speed. We played college teams. College was a little faster, but because I came from a prep school, I felt that I easily adjusted to the college game. It was like a red-shirt year for me when I was at Fork Union.”
Another reason Merling adjusted well to Clemson was because his father figure and uncle Chris accepted the defensive line coaching job at Clemson in 2005. Not only did Merling have his mentor with him, but he was also his position coach.
Merling impressed many during his freshman season. In his first collegiate game against #17 Texas A&M, he played only seven plays and yet still had a tackle for loss. The game he remembers the most came a few weeks later against Boston College.
“The Boston College game my freshman year was the most memorable game for me,” said Merling. “Charles Bennett went out (with an injury), and I played almost 50 snaps and had six tackles. That was the first game that I felt I helped my team out.”
Against N.C. State later in the year, Merling had a caused fumble and sack. The true freshman was emerging as a key player on the defense. He won the 12th Man Award for defense by the coaches at the end of the season.
Last season, Merling started all 13 games as a defensive end on the opposite side of first-round draft pick Gaines Adams. With those two bookends on the line, it was hard for teams to move the ball down the field on a consistent basis.
He tallied 46 tackles overall, ninth-most on the team, but third among defensive linemen. His most impressive stat, though, was the 10 tackles for loss. Only Adams had more. Merling added 20 quarterback pressures and three sacks. He had worked extremely hard to become a dominant force on defense.
Today, Merling is living out his dream. He has gone through a lot, but with the guidance of his uncle and his resolve to fulfill his dream of playing Division I football, he has become one of the top defensive lineman prospects in the country.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that one day he plans on giving back to the community and hopefully inspire other children to follow their dreams just like his uncle did for him.
“I want to be a mentor to the youth and go into coaching,” said Merling. “I want to give back what my uncle and others have done for me. They have been a big part of my life and are the reason I’m even playing football now.”
“He has really matured as a young man,” added Rumph. “Phillip has grown up practically in front of my eyes and I’m proud of him, including the way he has dealt with things academically. He did not qualify right out of high school and has dealt with some family issues. But I’m proud of the way he responded. I think it’s going to make him a better person in the future.
“As far as on the football field, I think he has grown tremendously there as well. Coming from a small school and going from one high school here in South Carolina, then one in Memphis, then going to prep school and then coming here, he is well-adjusted. He’s one of our leaders on the field. He plays with a lot of passion and heart, and he plays hard.”
Ashley Earle, a junior from Easley, SC, is a student assistant in the Clemson Sports Information Office.
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