In the biggest game in program history, and on the biggest stage, Utah’s defensive secondary was depleted.

When the Utes faced Ohio State in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, they were so shorthanded that running back Micah Bernard was playing cornerback.

That’s because cornerbacks JaTravis Broughton and backup Faybian Marks were out. Broughton suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against BYU in September and Marks sustained a season-ending injury at Arizona in November.

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And if that weren’t enough, Zemaiah Vaughn went down with a season-ending injury against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. 

In the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, coach Kyle Whittingham said, “We have taken a hit at corner. It’s next man up. We’ll put five guys back there in the secondary that will be ready to compete. We’re very thin at that position but we’ve got to deal with it.” 

Though OSU was dealing with the news that two of its top receivers, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, had opted not to play in the bowl game after declaring for the NFL draft, the Buckeyes still had quarterback C.J. Stroud, a Heisman finalist, and receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. 

And with Bernard doing his best playing a different position against one of the nation’s most explosive offenses, Stroud passed for 573 yards and six touchdowns and Smith-Njigba hauled in 15 catches for 347 yards and three TDs.

And the Utes fell 48-45 in Pasadena

But now it’s spring — and Utah’s secondary continues to try to get healthy. And it continues to try to get better. 

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Overseeing it all is cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, who might be feeling a little haunted by the Rose Bowl.

But the Utes are hoping to be at full strength at the cornerback position when they kick off the 2022 campaign. 

Returning is Clark Phillips, an All-Pac-12 second-team selection, as well as Broughton, Marks and Vaughn. 

While Broughton is participating in spring practices, Marks and Vaughn are still rehabbing. But both are expected to be back for fall camp in August. 

“These boys have bought in so fully and completely,” Shah said of his cornerbacks. “The thing that’s been the focus is, I need to see people be better in man coverage. God bless us to get back to where we were in the Rose Bowl. We’ve got to play some man coverage. I don’t care who’s out there. They need to be able to play man coverage.

“That’s getting better. I’ve seen it across the board. We have a long way to go. But that has made me happy. And tackling. Go back to the last game we played. We missed so many tackles. That’s been the emphasis. They get to us, we’re the last line of defense. We’ve got to make the tackle.”

Another focus of spring, Shah said, is “getting these guys to be mentally tougher.”

Behind Phillips, Marks and Vaughn are a handful of corners with limited experience — Caine Savage; Kenzel Lawler, who switched from safety this spring; and Elisha Lloyd. 

Shah wants to see Phillips do more to mentor his younger teammates. 

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“For Clark, it’s always, ‘You have a tremendous work ethic. Why don’t you instill that in everybody else? Bring people along,’” Shah said. “Every day, he’s doing something by himself to get better. You need to set a standard because you’re an older player. Bring everybody along. Second, I need him to be such a good technician.” 

Shah is optimistic about the cornerbacks’ progress.

“This is better than last spring in terms of guys that are showing up, understanding the defense and making plays,” he said. “It’s not about how many awesome schemes you can put in. It’s about making sure that the kids in your room are fundamentally sound and their technique is correct.

“It’s really just going back to the basics. I’d like to see their basic technique and fundamentals improve and that it’s so sharp now. It used to be dull last year. Now, it’s a little bit sharper.”

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