Clark Phillips III is the highest-rated recruit in Utah football history. But he’s never acted like it. 

The Ute cornerback is always working on his craft. No matter how many accolades he receives — he was named to the Associated Press Preseason All-America second team — the 5-foot-10, 183-pound sophomore never stops trying to improve. 

The anchor of the Utes’ secondary identified several areas where he could get better during the offseason, heading into the season opener at Florida.

When asked about that recently, Phillips’ eyes lit up. He is more than happy to talk about how he spent part of his summer. 

“He fell in love with film. I told him, ‘If you want to become the player that you are aspiring to be, fall in love with film. Fall in love with watching yourself and great corners and great receivers.” — Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah on Clark Phillips III

“I’ve tried to stay square in my press technique. I like to think of myself as a press-man corner. That’s why in 2019 it was intriguing to come to this place because you look at guys like (former Utes) Jaylon Johnson and Javelin Guidry. It’s super exciting,” he said. “That’s one of the things that I’ve tried to work on the most.

“Also, eye discipline. You can’t have too much of that as a corner if you want to be a good one or a great one. You’ve got to have tremendous eye discipline. Also tackling. I want to be a better tackler. I’ll put that out there. Those are the things personally I need to work on. I feel like all the guys can definitely benefit from that.”

Cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah can attest that Phillips is indefatigable when it comes to honing his game. And he’s been that way ever since he arrived on campus, with a maturity beyond his years.

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“Clark continues to master the small things. That’s what I love about him. When he first got here, we met so much it was ridiculous. Because of the COVID year, we had so many more opportunities to visit on Zoom and talk and he would be up here at the facility as much as I was, whether it was in the afternoon, the evening or 2 in the morning. It didn’t matter. He was coming,” Shah said. “He had an insatiable appetite from the beginning.

“He fell in love with film. I told him, ‘If you want to become the player that you are aspiring to be, fall in love with film. Fall in love with watching yourself and great corners and great receivers. Don’t get tired of the jewels and the nuggets that are embedded in true film study.’ That’s what I’m most proud about with Clark. It fires me up when you have a ballplayer like that.”

Shah marvels at how Phillips keeps pushing himself. 

“His acumen has increased. His desire to become a smart football player has increased so much. Clark continues to change his body. When he first got here, he was such a rock. And he’s still cut and chiseled. But he’s trying to elongate those muscles and I’ve seen it first-hand the explosion that I’ve witnessed that he didn’t have his first year here,” he said. “He’s able to move and get in and out of a break so much more quickly.

Utah defensive back Clark Phillips III has a believer in cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, who says Phillips’ ability to “master the small things” is among the things that make him such a special player. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics

“He’s much more fluid. I love his desire to make plays where he’s like, ‘Coach, I’m going to take a chance.’ It’s becoming a calculated chance where film study and his own confidence is starting to produce really good results. That’s what I’m seeing in fall camp. His evolution of confidence and film study and his ability to start trusting his body and instincts.”

For Phillips, reaching his potential is as much about the mental side as it is the physical side. He’s studied exhaustively about being successful, about being a champion. 

“I’m not Buddhist. I’m Christian. But I like to study a lot of their principles. Phil Jackson would always say, ‘Stay in the moment.’ That’s something I try to live by now,” he said. “I feel like as a freshman, as a first-year guy, that’s something that I’d always let the last play linger.

“I’d be looking forward to making a big play. I’d try to make something happen on third down. Often, when you try to work outside of your space, something bad happens, especially as a corner. That’s something I’ve been trying to preach to the guys — stay in the moment. A bad play happens? OK, short memory. Let’s move on. For me, that’s what I try to do. We’re so far away, but so close.”

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Wide receiver Solomon Enis has noticed how Phillips’ work ethic has paid dividends — not just for Phillips but for the entire secondary. 

“Clark is like (quarterback) Cam (Rising). Every day, he’s trying to get better and it shows up on the field,” he said. “Clark does a really good job of bringing everyone along with him. That room is loaded. It’s going to be scary back there.”

Family and faith

There are reasons why Phillips, who’s from Lakewood, California, is so humble and grounded — and it starts with his family and his faith. 

Phillips’ father is the leader of the Unity Missionary Pastor Church. Clark Phillips III is heavily involved in the ministry, providing service for his community. 

“I love my family. I love spending time with my family,” Phillips said. “My faith in God is what’s gotten me this far.”

For Phillips, playing football has never been about fame or fortune or prestige. Out of La Habra High, Phillips was a four-star recruit. He originally committed to Ohio State before deciding to sign with Utah because, in part, he loved the stability and the family atmosphere within the Utes’ program. 

But he didn’t make a decision like that without “a lot of prayer” as well as many conversations with his parents. 

Phillips continues to rely on support from his family while he’s at Utah. 

“Clark does not go one day without talking to his mother. He will make time to call her,” Shah said. “His dad is his best friend and mentor and true confidant. Big Clark never wanted to be Clark’s best friend. He wanted to tell him, ‘This is where you are, this is where you’re lacking. What are you willing to do to make up the difference?’

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“Clark took it to heart. It always came from such a place of love. His father being a man of the cloth, having his own congregation, Clark internalized it and saw he was trying to build him up. His family is so tight. He is who he is because of his brother (Bryce, who plays at Tennessee State), his baby sister and his mother and father. They continue to pour into him so much love.”

‘A phenomenal position’

Phillips reminds Shah a lot of Jaylon Johnson, who ended up as a two-time All-Pac-12 first team selection and a second-round NFL draft pick. 

“When I recruited Jaylon, he told me, ‘I’ll be with you three years, I’ll earn my degree and then I’m going to the League.’ And he did exactly what he said he would do,” Shah said. “I told Jaylon it would ‘require a herculean effort from you. You have to give up certain things. You can’t party like these other boys.’

“He did it to the letter of the law. With Clark, it was almost the exact same. ‘Coach, I want to be an all-conference player; I want to be with you for this many years, I want to get my degree and go to the League.’ Clark has worked himself into a phenomenal position.” 

Shah knows that Phillips’ future is bright. If things go as expected, he could be headed to the NFL next spring.

Utah’s Clark Phillips III has shown unique leadership skills during his short time at Utah. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics

“He’s somebody the (NFL) is considering as a potential top-round prospect and for good reason. He came here more mature. Clark never came to Utah following anybody else’s lead. He’s always expressed his belief and faith in God,” Shah said. “He’s held himself out as a man that doesn’t want to do certain things because it goes against his morals and his beliefs.” 

‘Now the crowd is starting to chase him’

Some people don’t understand Phillips’ single-minded focus and refusal to participate in some activities due to his beliefs. 

Some, Shah said, have “teased him,” asking if he’s “too cool to kick it with us.”

But Phillips was unflappable and unwavering.

“He was mature enough as a freshman to say, ‘I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be around this group of individuals; I don’t want to put myself in that kind of position, being at this type of party.’ He understood that,” Shah said. “It’s a credit to his mother and father. Phenomenal people.

“They raised their children to be God-fearing and to be able to stand up for what they believe and not follow but lead. ‘If I’m only leading myself to the right path, then that’s all the numbers I need.’ Clark was comfortable in his own skin. It proved to be so beneficial for him when he wasn’t chasing the crowd. Now the crowd is starting to chase him.”

Meanwhile, Phillips continues to work on his craft. He’s not paying attention to the outside noise. 

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Shah recalled a recent Sunday, when he was working in the office by himself, and then he noticed five defensive players, led by Phillips, were there, studying. 

“His example of film study and extra work after practice … that’s the culture that we try to promulgate in the cornerback room,” he said. “Just working harder.”

That culture is something that Phillips embodies every day. He lives it.

Phillips is the highest rated recruit in Utah football history. But he’s never acted like it.

Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III exits the team bus during preparations for the Rose Bowl game against Ohio State at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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