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Inside the Bills: Harrison Phillips stands ready as Kyle Williams passes the torch

An understandably large crowd of media formed Friday as Kyle Williams held his retirement news conference.

Standing behind the row of reporters and TV tripods were three of Williams’ teammates with the Buffalo Bills – veteran safety Micah Hyde, veteran tight end Charles Clay and one rookie: defensive tackle Harrison Phillips.

It’s not a surprise that Phillips was there Friday. Since joining the Bills as a third-round draft pick in April – he’s shadowed Williams whenever possible.

“Honestly, anything Kyle does I want to see or be a part of,” Phillips said Friday evening in a phone conversation with The Buffalo News. “He’s never going to be out there doing something. Any time he’s talking, I try to eavesdrop, try to listen. In this moment, even more so than any other. His final farewell to Buffalo, after what he’s done as a person and player, I just wanted to hear everything he had to say. I could imagine all the emotions he’s feeling and going through. Just to hear him put those in words, I wasn’t going to be anywhere else but there.”

So what did Phillips take away from listening to Williams address his decision to retire?

“That Kyle Williams is freaking awesome,” the rookie said. “I’ve only had the pleasure to know him for just a year here, not even, but just some of the moments we’ve had, he’s given me lifelong knowledge – things that I’ll use for however long my career here is going to be.”

The Bills obviously hope that’s a long time. From the moment he was selected with the 96th overall pick out of Stanford, fairly or unfairly Phillips has been viewed as Williams’ heir apparent. That has led to some humorous moments between the pair. Before Christmas, Pegula Sports and Entertainment had several Bills and Sabres recreate famous scenes from holiday movies. That included having Phillips and Williams spoof “Love Actually,” with the rookie delivering a holiday message to the veteran through a series of white cards.

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On Friday, Williams was asked about Phillips’ progression.

“Who? I don’t know him,” the veteran deadpanned, before adding, “the only thing I know for sure is that Harry’s not allowed to wear 95 next year. It’s got to have at least a year off, and then I think I reserve the right to sell it to Harrison when the time is right.”

Williams, though, then turned serious when talking about his role in bringing Phillips along.

“I’m excited for him. I think he’s going to be a great player, because more than anything else, he cares,” he said. “He wants to be good. He prepares because he wants to play well. Sadly enough, that’s not always the case in this league. Guys that have grit and are tough and want to be good, those guys have got a chance. I can’t wait to watch him play. I’m excited for him.”

Phillips has had a steady rookie season, appearing in all 15 games leading up to Sunday’s season finale against Miami. He’s played 38 percent of the defensive snaps and has 33 tackles.

“I feel like I'm ready to be a bigger part of this defense, of this team,” Phillips said Friday. “I understand the difference between positional power versus personal power and what that means with leadership. Building up as much personal power as an individual, as a friend, as a high-character guy who does things right, but that positional power of being a starter, or being four or five years in, there's different respect that comes with those things.

“I definitely want a bigger role. I'm hoping this offseason I can prove that I can fill a bigger role, whether that's five more plays a game or whether that's starting and taking 50, 60, 70 percent of the snaps, whatever it may be. Yeah, I want that role and I'm going to do everything I can in the next four months to OTAs and seven months until training camp to earn that right. But in terms of replacing Kyle, as cliche as it ever can be, no one can replace Kyle.”

Phillips knew when he joined the Bills that Williams was entering year 13, so their time together might be short.

“I don't think there's a better vet for me to have learned from,” he said. “I took full advantage of knowing, since he wasn't in year eight and I wasn't going to have another five or six years with him, I said, 'Hey, I need to be a sponge and soak up everything I can because he's not going to play forever.' So as much as it was him being there and helping me, I think it was myself as well going the extra mile to find what his routine was, find when he watched film. Getting into those meeting rooms, asking him what he's watching. I can imagine he would tell you it was annoying at times, but I really soaked up everything I could.”

That included Williams’ goodbye message Friday.

“Hearing the poise he had, the confidence he had — obviously, Kyle is so wise, so the whole process that went into this decision, you know this means it's time,” Phillips said. “This is what's best for him and his family. This is the piece that gets me is, though, is how much he loves us as a team, how much he loves the City of Buffalo, the organization. That's what makes this decision so hard for him.

Former Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams reached out to his expected replacement in the starting lineup shortly after the team spent a first-round draft pick on Ed Oliver. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

“He can still play. He gets so much of his thrill, so much of his passion (from the game). After all of his sacks, what does he do? He points right to us, right to our sideline, our fans, our coaches. I think it's incredible what he's done.”

Indeed, Williams isn’t retiring because he’s washed up. He’s got five sacks this season and was named a first alternate to the Pro Bowl. There’s a good chance he makes it into the game, too, which he said Friday he’d love to play in. That would be his sixth appearance, tied for sixth most in franchise history.

Rather, he’s decided it’s time to put his family first, saying he watched way too many T-ball and soccer games over FaceTime this spring.

“He’s knows that we’re heading in the right direction and Kyle can still play,” coach Sean McDermott said Friday. “That’s a hard decision to make, but putting his family first, really to me, is befitting of a man like Kyle. You see players hang on and continue to get their identity from this game, and he’s more than that. He’s bigger than that.”

A few weeks ago, when it was revealed that Williams had turned control of a defensive meeting over to rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, it was looked at as symbolic passing of the torch. The truth, though, is that Williams has been preparing the team’s younger players for this moment all year.

“Our players have a unique opportunity in Western New York and Buffalo in particular — it's unlike any NFL city I've been to — they gather … because of the intimacy of our community,” McDermott said. “So Kyle has had multiple players, young players in particular, over to his house with their significant others to shepherd them, share life, NFL experiences and then also I think begin to pass the torch. And so from a servant-leader standpoint, I think that's been interesting to watch.”

McDermott, too, has prepared for the inevitable. Every Friday, first- and second-year player meet in a leadership-development session. McDermott encouraged them throughout the year to watch how players like Williams and Lorenzo Alexander, to name just two, go about their business.

“Before you know it, they'll be gone,” the coach said. “What greater lesson from a leadership standpoint to learn (than) when it's led by example. Kyle's done that for a number of years here.”

That’s why it was so important for the franchise to get one more year out of Williams. It would have been easy for him to retire after the Bills ended a 17-year playoff drought last season, but McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane wanted him back to lead young players like Phillips.

“I know Harrison's learned a lot from him,” Beane said. “You can't measure what he's got inside. That's the thing, we as scouts, we try to do our best when we're watching guys. We see the physical tools. Kyle was knocked for short arms or lack of this, lack of that, but the guy knows how to play the game.

“You're not going to outwork him. That's the thing people don't realize is how much he does away — he's there more than probably any other player probably in that building — it's not always that he's watching film. He does a lot of that, but he's taking care of his body. He's doing everything the right way. That's why he's lasted as long as he has. He does everything right on the field, off the field.”

One example of that is Williams’ jump off the ball. Throughout his career, he’s looked a half-step quicker than everyone else. It’s more than just elite athleticism that’s allowed him to do that.

“He knows his opponent. He knows what that guy's going to do before the ball's snapped half the time,” Beane said. “Those are some of the things that hopefully Harrison and some of the other young guys have been able to pick up from him as we move forward. It's a big void to fill, but that's our job to try and work on that. Now that he's made that decision, that's where we'll turn once the season's over.”

If Phillips can take what he’s learned from Williams and translate it to the field, Beane might not have to look far.

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