LOS ANGELES — Jaelan Phillips tousles his curly black hair, pulling at the thick mess that somewhat resembles an overgrown Mohawk. He reluctantly cut it a few months ago when his locks became too difficult to manage on an early-morning college schedule. He was scared that the trim would drain him of his strength like Samson, a judge in the Hebrew bible who lost his immense power when he cut his hair. Phillips seems to be in the clear now.
“It’s growing back,” the freshman said Sunday of his mane, “so strength’s coming back with it. Maybe that’s why I’m doing well.”
Maybe it’s the hair that’s powering Phillips into UCLA’s starting defense. Maybe it’s the freakish athleticism packed in a 6-foot-4, 255-pound frame. Whatever it is, Phillips is flexing his muscle all over the field for the Bruins less than a week into training camp.
The former Redlands East Valley star has already worked his way into the starting defensive line as its razor, the rushing defensive end position Takkarist McKinley occupied last season. He’s a constant presence in the back field, collecting sacks and tackles for loss at will. He terrorizes UCLA tackles in one-on-ones.
“He’s going to be special,” said offensive lineman Kenny Lacy, a frequent opponent in one-on-one drills. “I’m looking for him to make some plays for us in the first game.”
But just five days into training camp, Phillips isn’t focused on UCLA’s season opener against Texas A&M at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 3 just yet.
“I’m just working the best I can to get familiar with everything, working with my teammates and everything like that, trying to put myself and my teammates in the best situation possible,” Phillips said. “At the end of the day when you do your job, things are going to happen your way.”
After joining the team in January, Phillips quickly ingratiated himself with his peers. When he’s waiting for his turn during individual drills, the former five-star prospect dances to music blaring from speakers across Spaulding Field. When a rock songs comes on, he plays his air guitar. He air boxes fellow defensive end Rick Wade, who might retaliate with a flying ninja kick.
Phillips keeps things light on the sideline, but is a fierce competitor on the field. Only 2 1/2 months removed from his 18th birthday, he is a potent blend of raw speed and strength. Now defensive line coach Angus McClure is adding technique.
“He’s a sponge,” said McClure, who…