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Freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips could become UCLA's disruptor-in-chief

Freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips could become UCLA's disruptor-in-chief
Freshman defensive lineman Jaelan Phillips participated in UCLA's spring practice in April, weeks before his 18th birthday. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

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.

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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," Bruins right guard Kenny Lacy said. "I'm looking for him to make some plays for us in the first game."

With a slim waist and a stout upper body, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Phillips combines a linebacker's speed with a power lifter's strength. UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure compared Phillips' build to that of former Bruins and current Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr.

"About the same height, same range, same quickness," McClure said of Phillips and Barr, a two-time Pro Bowl selection.

Phillips' style is all his own. He spent hour after hour studying film of himself and NFL players in recent months, examining techniques that could help him improve his pass rushing.

He joked that his early success in training camp was a result of flowing locks that he's let grow out recently, but those close to him realize he puts in the work essential to becoming a dominant player.

"He knows his reads, he understands the game of football, he uses his brain along with his body," Tessitore said. "He's very smart. He's just that special kid, once in a lifetime."

Phillips has entertained observers while tormenting the offense and playing around with his friends during breaks in practice. On the second day of camp, he engaged in a faux ninja warrior battle with fellow defensive end Rick Wade, twirling a thin pipe used in drills while whirling his body. Wade responded with a few playful kicks into the air before both players ended the exchange with a bow.

Phillips never seems to rest even while on the sideline, shimmying his body to hip-hop music blaring through speakers and lip syncing along to a Pearl Jam song.

"Football is a tedious sport, so if you're not having fun with it, what are you doing?" Phillips said when asked about his antics. "Obviously, I stay focused all the time, but just on the side if you're not doing anything, I'll just mess around a little bit. It's fun."

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UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said he didn't consider Phillips a freshman because of the way he's soaked up the culture of the program after participating in spring practice.

Phillips had played tight end before his high school coaches stuck him at outside linebacker during his sophomore season because of his height. It was a smart move. He blocked an extra point and recovered a fumble to help East Valley win a state bowl game by one point.

"He thought he was a receiver-tight end type guy," East Valley coach Kurt Bruich said, "and we had to convince him where he would basically have the most success."

He's had plenty of that already, registering a game-high five tackles to go with a quarterback hurry and half a sack in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January and entering camp as the most highly touted freshman on UCLA's roster.

It was no surprise that Phillips would become a Bruin considering his father, grandfather and grandmother all attended UCLA. An aunt even played French horn at the school. An excellent student, Phillips once pondered going to Stanford before acknowledging that his destiny was swathed in powderkeg blue and gold.

"I wanted to make my own way and stuff like that," Phillips said, "but then I realized it's my home and I've been here my whole life, been a Bruin fan my whole life, so this is the place for me for sure."

Phillips has fit in just fine early in camp, reaching in his muscular arm when the defensive linemen broke their position huddle with a loud shout of "D-line showtime!"

"We go out there, make plays, have a great time," Phillips said. "It's showtime. It's how it is."

Anyone who lines up opposite Phillips might just want to accept it.

Twitter: @latbbolch

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