Kyle Philips is used to needless L’s.
They often find their way into his last name whenever he receives mail, reads about himself in the newspaper or picks up a school-issued backpack with custom stitching.
“Oh, all the time,” Philips said with an eye roll. “Honestly, I just kind of expect it now.”
What the UCLA slot receiver didn’t anticipate, and found far more irritating, was all the L’s his team absorbed to start the season. The Bruins went L-L-L in their nonconference games before a crazy comeback win against Washington State was followed by two more L’s that left them at 1-5.
Rather than dwell on the failures, Philips has become his team’s get-well card. The redshirt freshman has caught at least one touchdown pass in each of the last three games while becoming quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s go-to receiver.
The tandem is so in sync that Thompson-Robinson fired a pass even before Philips made his cut shortly before halftime against Arizona State last weekend, resulting in a 20-yard touchdown when Philips caught the ball in the front corner of the end zone to help UCLA pull away for a second consecutive victory.
Now the Bruins (3-5 overall, 3-2 Pac-12 Conference) improbably control their destiny in the Pac-12 South heading into a game against Colorado (3-5 1-4) on Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl. They’ll probably have to avoid another L in their final four games to have any shot at playing at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara for the Pac-12 championship, but even the possibility of such a thing seemed unlikely just two weeks ago.
“We knew we could be something special,” Philips said, “we just had to keep pushing, so we did.”
The same could be said for Philips’ rise in football. He had dabbled in the sport growing up in San Marcos while also spending as much time as he could riding his motorcycle in the desert. When other kids his age started paying trainers with hopes of landing a college scholarship, his father, Michael, told him he was also willing to do so, on one condition: He had to be fully committed to football.
That was the end of Philips’ riding his motorcycle in the desert.
“He came to me one day,” Michael recalled, “and said, ‘You can sell my bike.’”
Kyle began training on weekends in Los Angeles with more elite players and became a star at San Marcos High. He combined the speed of his mother, Christie, a former high school sprinter, with the sure hands of his father, a former high school receiver. He has their names tattooed on the inside of his upper left arm, along with that of his sister McKenzie, a onetime nemesis turned best friend.
Recruiting letters jammed the family mailbox, including ones from UCLA. Philips committed to then-Bruins coach Jim Mora and never wavered after the school fired Mora in November 2017 and hired Chip Kelly as his replacement.
Philips played in three of UCLA’s first four games last season before being sidelined by a concussion. He could have returned late in the season but opted for an extra year of eligibility, along with some inside information after joining the scout team so that he could learn the tendencies of the Bruins’ defensive backs.
“I was able to talk to those guys and kind of get the DB perspective of what they think when the receivers are doing things,” Philips said, “so now I’m trying to switch it up a little bit to get them to think I’m doing something else when I’m really doing the opposite.”
The mind games have paid off in a breakthrough season. He’s made 34 catches for 381 yards and five touchdowns, including 26 catches over his last four games.
Philips is 5 feet 11 and 180 pounds, but what he lacks in stature he more than makes up for with crisp routes and catlike quickness.
“Him being in the slot, you put him on a bunch of mismatches on the inside with linebackers,” Thompson-Robinson said. “Coach Kelly does a great job of play-calling and getting our guys in the best position to win and so I think that’s what you’re seeing right now.”
Philips was clocked at 21 mph against Washington State, when his 69-yard punt return helped the Bruins rally from a 49-17 deficit. In the stands that night in Pullman were Michael and Christie, both Washington State graduates who were rooting like crazy against their alma mater.
“I had probably 15 or 20 friends from college there and they were excited to see me,” Michael said, “but they were not real excited that they lost to UCLA, so it was a pretty good moment for me.”
Philips’ average of 22.5 yards per punt return leads the Pac-12 and ranks third nationally, but his favorite moment from this season involved a touchdown catch against Oregon State when he dragged a foot inbounds in the end zone.
Mastering the details has been a theme for Philips at UCLA. The Bruins were among the few schools that spelled his name correctly in their recruiting correspondence, a harbinger of things to come for both the player and his team.
“They got it right,” Philips said. “I was pretty stoked about that one.”