Phillips’ abil­ity to ex­ploit gaps, in­vade back­field and raise havoc could trans­form UCLA’s de­fense

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Ben Bolch

There are times Jae­lan Phillips slips into the back­field so eas­ily and causes so much dis­rup­tion that it feels like he’s the only player UCLA needs on de­fense.

Once, when Phillips was in high school, he ac­tu­ally was the only player stand­ing be­tween the of­fense and a touch­down. Even then, no one got past him.

Frus­trated with the ef­fort of ev­ery de­fender be­sides Phillips dur­ing a mid­week prac­tice, Chalen Tes­si­tore, the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Red­lands East Val­ley High, or­dered the other 10 play­ers off the field. Phillips was told to line up at his usual spot at out­side line­backer and go against the of­fense, one on 11. It was no con­test in­deed. “Out of 10 plays, he made nine tack­les be­fore the kid got five yards from his side of the field,” Tes­si­tore re­called Sun­day. “He still made the other play on a slip screen across the field — 10 yards. I looked at the other guys and I go, ‘You see that ef­fort? That’s the ef­fort we’re look­ing for.’ ”

UCLA has seen a sim­i­lar re­solve from Phillips over the first five days of train­ing camp. The fresh­man de­fen­sive end has beaten ju­nior left tackle Kolton Miller with reg­u­lar­ity, spend­ing so much time in the back­field that he would be clos­ing in on gold sta­tus if he earned re­wards points.

It’s easy to for­get that Phillips turned 18 in late May. He’s not only played with the first-team de­fense but con­sis­tently gummed up the of­fen­sive game plan, giv­ing the Bru­ins hope they might have found their re­place­ment for departed star Takkarist McKin­ley.

“He’s go­ing to be spe­cial,”

into train­ing camp, to Arkansas. He never sniffed the field, but he worked hard and stayed out of trou­ble. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wished him well as Town re­turned home to Ven­tura Col­lege, a ju­nior-col­lege stopover, to seek a Di­vi­sion I start­ing job.

The trou­ble is, Town once promised all that Darnold has be­come — or at least he was told he did by coaches, re­cruit­ing ser­vices and just about every­one else. USC of­fered him a schol­ar­ship be­fore it did Darnold. By early 2014, a con­sen­sus of scout­ing ser­vices ranked him the No. 1 prospect in his class.

The des­ig­na­tion trailed him like an an­chor.

“You can blame re­cruit­ing sites like our­selves,” said Bran­don Huff­man, direc­tor of re­cruit­ing for “You can blame us be­cause we crowned him. We ranked him No. 1. And a lot of times that does put pres­sure un­nec­es­sar­ily on kids.”

Stand­ing near the side­line, Ven­tura coach Steve Moosha­gian said when Town came to the pro­gram, “I don’t want to use the word that he was a lit­tle ‘gun­shy,’ but he was very ten­ta­tive. He was afraid to throw an in­ter­cep­tion, afraid to throw a bad ball. And it didn’t seem like he was hav­ing fun.”

Moosha­gian said the key to Town’s rein­ven­tion is sim­ple: Learn to love play­ing again.

Moosha­gian’s goal is to re­verse a process that be­gan in Town’s sopho­more year of high school, when he moved from the Bay Area to play for Ven­tura St. Bon­aven­ture. The big de­bate in re­cruit­ing cir­cles was whether Town or Josh Rosen, now at UCLA, was the next big quar­ter­back. Most chose Town.

Town’s father, Ricky Sr., told Bleacher Re­port in 2014 that his son re­ceived 125 let­ters on the first day col­leges were al­lowed to send them. He re­ceived at least 7,000 in all.

“It def­i­nitely forces you to grow up pretty quick,” the younger Town said af­ter his work­out was over. “There’s a lot of things that you have to deal with. There’s a lot of peo­ple that are count­ing on you and try­ing to ma­nip­u­late you.”

Trou­ble be­gan be­fore Town’s ju­nior sea­son when St. Bon­aven­ture fired coach Todd Ther­rien. Town had to ad­just to a third coach in three years. Then he in­jured his knee. Be­fore it had fully healed, he was back at re­cruit­ing camps. It was a mis­take.

“He looked like a com­pletely dif­fer­ent quar­ter­back than he did the year be­fore,” Huff­man said. “You’re look­ing at him as a sopho­more think­ing, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s this good now, how good is he go­ing to be in two years?’ To now, ‘Oh my gosh, what hap­pened?’ ”

Every­one had the­o­ries. Every­one shared those the­o­ries.

“Imag­ine try­ing to take golf lessons from dozens of dif­fer­ent coaches a year, each with their own ideas on how to cre­ate the per­fect swing,” Town Sr. said in 2014.

The young quar­ter­back’s con­fi­dence dis­ap­peared. He hes­i­tated. He held the ball too long.

He, not Darnold, was the jewel of USC’s class, but he strug­gled in his first spring with the Tro­jans. His trans­fer came as a shock, and he still prefers to not talk about it. There was no sin­gle thing that made him leave, he said. He left it at that.

“He’s kind of just buried all that from the past,” Moosha­gian said.

Arkansas fans greeted his trans­fer with ela­tion.

“There was that per­cep­tion out there that Ricky Town’s Tim Tebow or some­thing, he’s the sav­ior,” said Bob Holt, a re­porter for the Arkansas DemocratGazette who has cov­ered the Ra­zor­backs since 1981.

Town liked the coaches at Arkansas, but he was buried on the depth chart. Bielema told re­porters that Town “was de­fi­cient in ‘Ho­ganese,’ ” Bielema’s term for Arkansas’ of­fen­sive lan­guage. It was as if “we’re speak­ing French to him,” Bielema said.

Moosha­gian has known Town for years, but by the time he en­rolled at Ven­tura this win­ter, “It was hard to even have a con­ver­sa­tion with him,” Moosha­gian said. “I think he didn’t know who to trust.”

Ven­tura has be­come a pop­u­lar spot for re­vival. Its pre­vi­ous two quar­ter­backs have been Di­vi­sion I re­bounds: Ty Gangi (who came from Colorado and went on to Ne­vada) and Jake Lu­ton (Idaho, Ore­gon State).

Six Ven­tura quar­ter­backs since 2013 have ended up on Di­vi­sion I teams. Brad Ode­man trans­ferred to San Diego State, Case Cookus to North­ern Ari­zona, Conor Re­gan to North­ern Colorado and Michael Gog­gin to Idaho State.

“They can come here and they can take that freakin’ weight off their shoul­ders,” Moosha­gian said.

Town has gained vis­i­ble con­fi­dence since the spring. He doubts less. He over­thinks less. Fam­ily mem­bers have given him his space.

“I think fi­nally he’s just said, ‘Look, let me do this on my own here. I don’t want any­body telling me what to do. I’m go­ing to make my own mind up,’ ” Moosha­gian said. “And I re­spect that.”

Moosha­gian be­lieves quar­ter­backs of­ten thrive at Ven­tura be­cause there is noth­ing to lose.

“I think there’s al­ways ex­pec­ta­tions, es­pe­cially com­ing from where I came from and what­not and my past,” Town said. “But it’s def­i­nitely nice to just have the ball in my hands again and just do my thing. Yeah, it feels good to just re­lax a lit­tle bit and know that I’m the guy here and just en­joy it for what it is.”

Town be­lieves he can still make an im­pact for a Di­vi­sion I team. He wants to find some­where he can start.

Af­ter the work­out was over, Moosha­gian walked to­ward the side­line with Town.

“I’m just glad he’s smil­ing and hav­ing fun,” the coach said.

He put his arm on Town’s shoul­der, and Town let out a laugh.

“That’s what I told him,” Moosha­gian said. “The first time, I said, ‘Ricky, are you hav­ing fun yet?’ And he said, ‘I’m start­ing to.’ ”

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

GET­TING A QUICK JUMP is a spe­cialty of UCLA fresh­man de­fen­sive end Jae­lan Phillips (15), who ar­rived on cam­pus early to par­tic­i­pate in spring prac­tice, above, weeks be­fore his 18th birth­day, and has wasted no time be­com­ing a dis­rup­tive force in fall camp.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

FORMER USC quar­ter­back Ricky Town (8), watch­ing Cody Kessler in 2015, has landed at Ven­tura Col­lege af­ter a lost sea­son at Arkansas.

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