SALT LAKE CITY — In some ways, freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III symbolized Utah’s young defense last season.

As one of nine new starters on that side of the ball, Phillips took on some massive responsibilities. 

Even before he played a snap, there were lofty expectations heaped on Phillips, the highest-rated recruit in the history of the Utes’ football program.

On top of that, amid a pandemic season, Utah coaches trained Phillips to play two positions — cornerback and nickel. And they wanted him to become a team leader despite his lack of experience at the college level. 

Through it all, as the Utes played a five-game schedule, Phillips learned and developed, and so did his fellow freshmen.

“That was our first go-round. We had nine new starters. We got thrown to the wolves; thrown into the fire. And I loved it. That’s why I love my coaches. They put us in the best position to win. We won some games and this year we expect to win a lot more.” — Clark Phillips III

“That was our first go-round. We had nine new starters. We got thrown to the wolves; thrown into the fire. And I loved it,” Phillips said. “That’s why I love my coaches. They put us in the best position to win. We won some games and this year we expect to win a lot more.”

After gaining invaluable experience, Phillips can’t wait to show the world what the Utah defense can accomplish in 2021.

“We’re going to be licking our chops out there. I tell all the guys every day, ‘They still think that we’re not ready,’” he said. “We’re all taking strides. We’ve been able to capitalize on reps. The spring was so valuable. The season was valuable. There were only five games. We got some valuable reps. You’re gonna see something special this year.”

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This season, the plan is for Phillips to play primarily at corner, said cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, who wants Phillips to focus on one position. 

“I put so much on him (last season). It’s a credit to who he is and the program he came from in high school. I asked him to learn nickel, which in the corner room is exceptionally difficult. It’s fraught with so many pitfalls,” Shah said. “It was a lot on him. A number of the mistakes he made throughout the season I felt were my fault.

“I told him I needed him to be ready and he didn’t back down. Naturally, you’re going to fold when you have so much on you. And he still showed up. Having him primarily on the outside has made life a lot simpler for him.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham added that, for the most part, he wants to keep Phillips at cornerback this season. 

“But he is fully capable of moving inside if we need him to. If we have an injury, you would see that happen,” Whittingham said. “But right now, he’s spending 90% of his time outside and still a few reps here and there inside just to stay sharp.”

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For Phillips, he’s willing to play any position to help Utah win games. 

“I’m going to do whatever the team needs. I love just to help the team and whatever we need to win,” he said. “If I have to go to nickel, I’ll go to nickel. If it’s safety, I’ll go to safety. If it’s kicker, I’ll go to kicker. Whatever the team needs.”

Phillips has continued to hone his craft in the offseason, learning what it takes to be a lock-down corner in the Pac-12. 

Asked in what area he’s improved the most since joining the Utes, he said, “Discipline. Eye discipline. It’s something that every DB needs. In order to go from good to great, you have to have that.” 

At the other corner spot, the Utes feel great about sophomore JaTravis Broughton, who exceeded expectations last season, according to Whittingham. 

Utah defensive back JaTravis Broughton lines up during first day of fall camp at the University of Utah on Aug. 4, 2021. A sophomore, Broughton is expected to start at corner opposite of Clark Phillips III for the Utes in 2021. | University of Utah Athletics

“We thought he was going to be pretty good; he turned out to be very good. It’s not a big surprise because of his skill set and the tools that he has. He was a state champion in the sprints in Oklahoma,” Whittingham said. “He’s got it all. He looks like a prototypical corner. He’s got that blazing speed and he put it together sooner than we thought he would. We had an inkling that he was going to be good but he exceeded that.”

Broughton and Phillips are certainly pushing each other to be better in fall camp. 

“We compete every day. He gets a PBU, I’m like, ‘Dude, I need two.’ I get three PBUs, like today I had a lot of PBUs, this dude had a pick,” Phillips said of Broughton. “So having that competitive rivalry and edge is only gonna make us better. He speaks about it and I speak about it all the time. We love each other because of it. We push each other.”

The way Shah sees it, his young corners took major strides last season that will be evident this season. 

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“In the corner spot, we have a chance to be pretty decent. The COVID year was really good for us. It gave us a chance to get valuable reps,” Shah said. “While folks were looking and wondering, ‘Why are they playing so many young kids?’ That’s all we had. We were playing what we had.

“You can’t put young kids in the fire as often as you put the older boys. You needed to ease them in. Folks are asking, ‘You’re playing a lot more zone now.’ Yeah, I am. I need them to get used to playing a lot of man. We’ll play a lot more man coming up because these kids are getting some confidence that they just didn’t have before.”

Looking back at last season, Phillips is grateful for what he’s experienced so far at Utah, as multiple responsibilities were placed on him at a young age.

“It really speaks to what the coaches think of me and my skill set. They allow for me to play versatile and play nickel and corner,” Phillips said. “That was stressful as a freshman, and now I think I can take it on.”

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