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Legacy cemented: Will the Utes ever have another cornerback like Clark Phillips III?

Phillips, a third-year sophomore, started all 31 games during his Utah career, and in 2022 he became only the fourth unanimous All-American in program history

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Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III warms up before the start of their NCAA college football game against Oregon State.

Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III warms up before the start of the Utes’ game against Oregon State Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Salt Lake City. The unanimous All-American cornerback will be playing on Sundays next fall.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Cornerback Clark Phillips III arrived on Utah’s campus in January 2020 as the highest-rated recruit in the history of the Utes’ football program. He carried with him a spiral-bound notebook filled with 13 goals he wanted to accomplish during his time in Salt Lake City. 

Three years later, cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah remembers how much Phillips wanted to be challenged and reach his potential.

“For him to achieve what he set out to do, three years ago, it brings tears to my eyes. It’s overwhelming. I love that boy so much. I miss him from a father-son standpoint, a player-coach standpoint, a good kid standpoint.” — Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah on Clark Phillips III

“I won’t share with you all of the goals but I will tell you this — the things that we’ve seen this year were part of what he said three years ago,” Shah recalled. “He said, ‘Coach Shah, help me get there. Be relentless on me. Don’t stop coaching me as hard as you do. Demand from me everyday greatness and I believe I can get there.’”

Just prior to the start of the truncated 2020 campaign, Phillips told reporters, “I have goals that I don’t really mention to people. I have goals that I’ve written down inside of my room that I look at every day and that remind me every single morning what I’m doing it for and what I came to Salt Lake City for.” 

So just what did the 5-foot-10, 183-pound team captain from Lakewood, California, accomplish, aside from helping the Utes capture back-to-back Pac-12 championships and Rose Bowl berths?

Well, for starters, Phillips earned unanimous All-America honors in 2022, becoming the fourth player in program history to be so recognized and the first on either defense or offense. The others were kicker Louie Sakoda (2008) and punters Tom Hackett (2015) and Mitch Wishnowsky (2018).

Phillips, a third-year sophomore, started in all 31 games during his career, recording 10 interceptions and four pick-sixes. In 2022, Phillips recorded 24 tackles, a sack and six interceptions, with 142 return yards, and six pass breakups. The two-time All-Pac-12 selection finished the season tied for the most picks among Power Five players. 

“For him to achieve what he set out to do, three years ago, it brings tears to my eyes. It’s overwhelming,” Shah said. “I love that boy so much. I miss him from a father-son standpoint, a player-coach standpoint, a good kid standpoint.

“It’s such a joy to see how good God is to us. It is such a joy to see that hard work always pays off. I’m speechless at times when I think about him. I’m so proud of him and I’m so excited to see what the next phase of his life will have.”

‘A bright future’

That next phase, of course, will be in the NFL. Phillips is projected to be an early-round pick in April. 

In mid-December, Phillips declared for the draft and opted out of the Rose Bowl to get ready. 

Certainly, the Utes wished they could have had Phillips in their 35-21 loss to Penn State. But the coaching staff was supportive of Phillips’ decision. 

“Clark is a tremendous player. Certainly would have helped to have him back there in the secondary,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “But he wasn’t there, so like I said, it’s next man up mentality. We missed him, but he’s got a bright future ahead of him at the next level, and we wish him all the best, and he gave us so much while he was here during his time at Utah, and we appreciate everything he did for our program. You’re going to be watching him for years to come in my opinion.”

Phillips didn’t consult the coaching staff in his decision to leave the program but defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said he was “very supportive” of it.

“You look at what he’s done for our program, the type of kid he is,” he said. “I’m excited for his future, I really am. He’s a kid that sacrificed a lot, that gave us everything he had while he was here, and more power to him. I’m excited for him. …  And great job by Sharrieff Shah recruiting him and developing him, as well.”

Lasting legacy

Phillips leaves a lasting legacy on the program, and specifically on the cornerbacks room, Shah said. 

“When Clark left us, which is beautiful, he understood that he prepared a certain way every game,” he said. “A lot of people in our own room did not appreciate his level of preparation. It wasn’t until he got to the tail end of the season when it became somewhat apparent to us that he may not participate in this game that people in the room said, ‘We need to be able to at least prepare the way you do.’

“Clark has gifts that nobody else has. But what he did share and imparted on the rest of the boys was, stay with coach Shah, study, study, study. He has an insatiable appetite for film,” Shah continued. “We would be studying several hours before the game. This is what these boys are doing now. This is what he left. He made us better by giving them a foundation of don’t ever stop preparing,

“He’s in the locker room looking at film just before kickoff. We’re on the bus and people are on their phone, looking at practice. No one did that last year. That was because Clark said, ‘All this time we travel back and forth, we could be looking at cut-ups.’ That’s how I think we’re better without him now — the blueprint and foundation that he gave the boys. I could have told him that a thousand times but they don’t care about me. They care about him. How did he get to be so productive? His level of preparation — he prepared better than most anybody.”

Showing the way

Safety Cole Bishop was sad to see Phillips go, but he was glad to see him chasing his NFL dreams. 

“I was happy for him. Obviously, you want everyone to play (in the bowl game),” he said. “But people have to make their careers. I think it will be worth it for him. I’m excited for him.”

Like Phillips, Bishop also has NFL aspirations. Watching Phillips work and prepare for the NFL has inspired Bishop and shown him what’s possible. 

“Seeing him perform like that and me having a pretty good year, knowing that the more I work, the better off I can be is super exciting,” he said. “This whole offseason, I was working out with him, doing hot yoga three times a week. I was able to just learn from him and how he works. That’s paid off for him. It taught me a lot.”

For Phillips, it was all part of his plan, part of his list of 13 goals written in a spiral-bound notebook. 

“He came in and did nothing but buy into the process, buy into what we were doing,” Scalley said. “I wish I had a million Clark Phillips. I’m proud of him for what he’s accomplished. I’m grateful for what he’s brought to our program. I’ve learned more from Clark than he’s probably learned from me, and wish him and his family nothing but the best … I can’t say enough about Clark Phillips. Some team is going to be lucky enough to have him a part of their program. He’s going to do right off the field; he’s going to do right on the field.”

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Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III celebrates a touchdown with teammates as Utah and Oregon State play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Morgan V. Winterton, Deseret News