LOS ANGELES — On national signing day a couple years ago, it appeared freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III was set to join Ohio State’s football program.
But on that day, Phillips decided to flip from the Buckeyes to Utah, becoming the Utes’ highest-rated recruit in school history.
Now, he’ll face Ohio State Saturday (3 p.m. MST, ESPN) in the Rose Bowl.
“You know, man, it’s just crazy. You just never know God’s plan,” he said Wednesday. “Just thinking two and a half years ago I was fully committed to Ohio State and I was excited about becoming a Buckeye as a senior in high school. Now we’re playing against them in one of the biggest games I’ve ever played in.”
Playing into his change of heart was OSU defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley becoming the head coach at Boston College.
“Yeah, man, I loved Jeff Hafley. Still talk to him sometimes,” Phillips said. “You know, there were coaching adjustments with Ohio State. There was coaching certainty with Utah, and I really wanted to be a part of a program with a great defense, which Ohio State had, which was why I was intrigued, and also Utah had, and I feel like I made a great decision.”
Phillips said the decision to choose Utah over OSU was the “hardest of my life.”
While evaluating his options, he relied on prayer and input from friends and family.
“My whole family was with me and they helped me make a great decision because I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now, but I am grateful for the experience and I am grateful for the Ohio State recruiting me as well as the Utah staff,” Phillips said.
Phillips recalled having to let OSU coach Ryan Day know about his decision.
“Tough call. Love Ryan Day. Love what he stands for,” he said. “But yeah, when I had to — we talked very often, and he was a big part of my recruitment, so of course out of respect that was a conversation I had to have first, and he understood, as great coaches do, and he knew that I had to do what’s best for me, and that was coming here.”
Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said he had high expectations for Phillips, who arrived in 2020 and started in all five games of the COVID-19 shortened season.
“We knew he had the skill set. We knew he had the mindset. Then it was up to him to compete and to learn the playbook and to get that stuff down,” he said. “His mindset coming into the program was one of the best I’ve seen, just in terms of, OK, I don’t care who’s a senior, who’s a junior. Here’s me. Here’s my plan. Here’s what we’re going to do. He got together with coach (Sharrieff) Shah, and he’s been one of the best that we’ve had in terms of that mindset to come in and play early.”
Of course, Scalley is pleased with the way Phillips has performed.
“He’s a great young man. Clark chose to come here because he felt like this was an environment where he could thrive and succeed, just as he committed to Ohio State,” he said. “Unbelievable young man, huge addition to our program. It’s fun to watch him succeed.”
This season, Phillips has earned the reputation of being a lockdown corner for the Utes.
“People always talk about either the sophomore slump or that guy really raised his stock, and I felt like this year I raised my stock,” Phillips said.
Once he made the decision to go to Utah, he never looked back. In his mind, Phillips had dreams of winning Pac-12 championships and playing in the Rose Bowl.
“You make goals at the beginning of the season and you just never know if you’re going to accomplish them or when it’s going to be,” he said. “This was one of those things I would have never expected, but also excited for and you work for every single day, and I’m just like so grateful because who would have thought it would have been in my freshman year. I know it’s my second freshman year, but who would have thought it would have been freshman year?”
Before signing with Utah, Phillips knew about the program’s culture and he knew about coach Kyle Whittingham’s style.
“That was the big thing for me. That’s why for me it was like, all right, I understand these guys,” he said. “When I was talking to the staff, when I saw the players in the locker room, when I got to talk to them, talk to guys like Terrell Burgess on the Rams now, and I saw the culture. The culture was super strong. They have a great defense, and they’re just — the way that they are, I was like, OK, I could be a part of this.”
Now, Phillips is ready to take the field at the Rose Bowl, representing Utah and facing the team he also committed to two years ago.
“I’m excited about it. I know it’s going to be a great game,” he said. “Got a lot of respect for those guys on the other side, and I think this is our year.”