Phillips’ ability to exploit gaps, invade backfield and raise havoc could transform UCLA’s defense
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 Scout.com. “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.’ ”
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.
FORMER USC quarterback Ricky Town (8), watching Cody Kessler in 2015, has landed at Ventura College after a lost season at Arkansas.