Lawrence Phillips, a star running back at Nebraska, first-round NFL draft pick and former CFLer whose pro career quickly unraveled amid disciplinary problems, was found dead in his California prison cell early Wednesday, and officials said they suspect suicide.

Guards at Kern Valley State Prison found Phillips, 40, unresponsive in his cell. He was taken to an outside hospital and pronounced dead about 1:30 a.m., the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.

He had been housed alone in a segregation cell since April 2015 after he was suspected of killing his cellmate. A Kern County judge had ruled Tuesday that there was enough evidence to try Phillips in the death of Damion Soward, 37.

Phillips was sent to prison in 2008 to serve a sentence of more than 31 years after he was convicted of twice choking his girlfriend in 2005 in San Diego and of driving his car into three teens later that year after a pickup football game in Los Angeles.

He played for the St. Louis Rams before being released in 1997 for insubordination. He also played for the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers.

He also spent two years in the CFL, winning a Grey Cup and being named a CFL all-star in 2002 with the Montreal Alouettes, and spending the 2003 season with the Calgary Stampeders.

Phillips was once one of the top U.S. college football players at Nebraska, but he went from Heisman Trophy candidate to pariah after he beat a former girlfriend hours after a spectacular performance in a September 1995 win at Michigan State.

College coach surprised

Phillips pleaded no contest to third-degree misdemeanor assault and trespassing and was sentenced to one year of probation. Tom Osborne, Phillips' former coach at Nebraska, arranged for Phillips to undergo in-patient therapy for anger management at a Kansas clinic and suspended him for six games, a punishment many national observers deemed too lenient.

Osborne defended his decision to reinstate Phillips, saying medical personnel agreed that Phillips needed the structure of football in his life.

His former coach said Wednesday that he was surprised by Phillips' death.

"All of his correspondence with me, in spite of his circumstances, have been fairly upbeat," Osborne said. "I'm surprised because I didn't see that coming."

'He was very loyal to his friends, and yet he had some anger issues and couldn't overcome the demons in his life.' - Tom Osborne, Phillips' former coach at Nebraska

He said it was sad because Phillips had many gifts, not just in athletics.

"He was an intelligent person and had some good qualities," Osborne said. "He was very loyal to his friends, and yet he had some anger issues and couldn't overcome the demons in his life."

Coincidently, a court-appointed suicide prevention expert commended the state corrections department in a report Wednesday for recent steps it has taken to combat what has been a chronic problem. Lindsay Hayes said the number of suicides and the suicide rate appeared to have decreased slightly during the last two years. However, he noted several continuing problems with suicide prevention efforts at the prison where Phillips died.

Phillips was checked twice an hour because he was in a segregation unit. The in-custody death triggers an investigation, a review by the federal court-appointed official who controls the prison medical system, and, if it is ruled a suicide, oversight by federal officials and lawyers involved in a long-running lawsuit over the care of mentally ill inmates.

Judge Michael Dellostritto on Tuesday ordered Phillips to face trial on a charge of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of lying in wait, Kern County court records show. The special circumstance could have led to the death penalty had he been convicted, but prosecutors said no decision on that had been made.

"Our condolences are extended to his family," Deputy District Attorney Andi Bridges said after learning of Phillips' death.

The cellmate he was accused of killing was the cousin of former University of Southern California and NFL wide receiver R. Jay Soward, who was well-known in Los Angeles during his career.

Jesse Whitten, Phillips' attorney, said his client was upbeat and confident at the hearing and had expected the outcome. "It was not like he was surprised or upset with the way the hearing went," Whitten said.

Optimistic

George Darlington, the assistant coach who handled Phillips' recruitment to Nebraska, said Phillips was optimistic about Tuesday's court hearing in a letter he received about two weeks ago.

"I had no indication that he had lost hope or wanted to give up," Darlington said.

He said people would be surprised to hear that Phillips was an unselfish individual who cared about his teammates.

Nebraska recruited Phillips out of a West Covina, California, group home, and he was a key member of the Cornhuskers' national championship teams in 1994 and 1995. He ran for 165 yards and two touchdowns in a Fiesta Bowl win over Florida that clinched the national championship, then declared he would enter the 1996 NFL draft as an underclassman.

His former coach said he corresponded with Phillips every few months.

"Things weren't going in a good direction for him. All I can say is I feel very bad, and I guess we feel like we did what we could for him," Osborne said. "Whatever it was, it wasn't enough."

With files from CBC Sports