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March 3, 2010

Phelps emerging as one of the elite

If there were any lingering doubts about whether Damascus' Brandon Phelps could be an elite receiver, they were expelled in last year's regional semifinal game. In that showdown with Linganore - the toughest defense in Division 3A -- Phelps did something no one had accomplished against the Lancers all year.

The play was called "smash." Damascus had the ball at their own 24-yard line trailing 3-0 in the first quarter. Quarterback Connor Frazier rolled out, looking for a receiver. Nothing doing.

Frazier scrambled in order to buy time. After a few tantalizing seconds, he found his favorite target wide open behind the Linganore defense. Seventy-six yards later, Brandon Phelps was standing in the end zone.

"The [Linganore] defensive back saw I was running a corner route," Phelps said. "So I changed my pattern, took it vertical and Connor put it right on the money. It felt great to score a touchdown against one of the best teams...maybe ever."

That was hardly the first time Phelps made a play. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound junior phenom established himself as one of the best skill players in Montgomery County last year (and that includes those stars from Good Counsel). While pulling double-duty for Damascus, Phelps shut down his side of the field as a cornerback and hauled in 38 catches for close to 500 yards and six touchdowns as a receiver.

After the season the Gazette named him Second Team All-County as an underclassman. Better yet, he started piling up scholarship offers from Penn State, Duke, Maryland, Connecticut, West Virginia and Illinois.

"He's a Division I player and he's getting interest at both receiver and defensive back," said Damascus coach Eric Wallich. "As a receiver, he has great hands, he runs incredible routes and he really understands coverages. And as a corner, he's aggressive, he can play the run or the pass and he has great ball skills when the ball's in the air."

Asked to pick which position he preferred, Phelps said he liked both. In fact, Phelps - who was offered as a defensive back by Penn State -- said both receiver and cornerback go hand-in-hand.

"As a receiver, I know the coverages and I know where I can position myself to put the defense in a bad position," Phelps explained. "And as a defensive back, I know what's going on in a receiver's mind because I'm thinking what I would do as a receiver in a certain situation."

That being said, Phelps acknowledged he's a "natural receiver." After all, he's been playing the position since he was eight years old.

Phelps first learned how to be a wide out from his father, who played flanker at the University of Virginia. When Phelps was old enough his father taught him about footwork, the proper way to catch a ball (hands, not chest) and how to identify weak spots in a defense.

"When I was younger my dad let me in on some of the secrets to being a wide receiver and it really helped me out," Phelps said. "I'm on my own now, but he was instrumental in the early part of my career."

By the time Phelps reached varsity his sophomore year of high school, he was practically a refined receiver. Wallich remembers the first pass route Phelps ran in practice.

"It was a basic 12-yard out-route," Wallich said. "The smooth cut he made, how he created separation and then how he caught it with his hands and not his body - it was unbelievable at that age. That's when I knew he was going to be special."

Of course, Phelps had his quarterback to thank, too. For as long as Phelps has been a receiver, Frazier has been his quarterback. The two have been playing together since the third grade and developed a strong rapport.

Seven years after the tandem started hooking up in Pop Warner, the Frazier-to-Phelps combo is starting to rival Montana-to-Rice … or at least Cosh-to-Harris (last year's Arundel High quarterback-receiver combination).

"We're really used to each other," Phelps said. "He knows my speed, how I like to run routes … we even have a bunch of signals and signs we'll use during a game."

Phelps wouldn't reveal all his secrets, but he did mention a play the two have inside the red zone. If Phelps sees an opening in the defense, he'll alert Frazier with a pre-snap hand gesture and the quarterback will throw it up for him.

Witness the Damascus-Blake game last year. The Hornets had the ball inside the 10-yard line and came out in an I-formation heavy set with just one receiver (Phelps) flanked to the right. The call was supposed to be a smash up the middle. But Phelps noticed the cornerback playing soft coverage, so he motioned for Frazier to audible.

"I called for our 'Choice' play, where Connor will throw a quick pass to the receiver near the goal line," Phelps said. "I ran a quick slant and I was wide-open for a touchdown."

It's those types of plays that make Wallich smile and shake his head.

"Brandon has incredible chemistry with Connor," Wallich said. "They work well together and it's only going to get better next year."

Phelps, for his part, is doing everything he can to make that happen. He'll work with Frazier on a routine basis this offseason. His goal: to become a more explosive receiver so he can turn Frazier's shorter passes into big gainers.

But Phelps has another position to worry about, too. As a corner, he's refining his footwork and ball skills in anticipation of another season containing the No. 1 receiver.

"I'm aiming for a big year," Phelps said. "That goes for both sides of the ball."

Expectations are high, especially now that Phelps is an established Division I player. Even his even-tempered coach is raising the bar.

"I expect him to be the best player on the field every time he's out there," Wallich said. "He should dominate offensively and defensively."


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