There was a time when Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III was projected as a first-round NFL draft pick.

But entering this week’s draft, because of concerns about his size, and because of the deep cornerback class, Phillips is expected to slide into Day 2.

“It’s one of those things where you can’t control it. You’ve just got to own your 20 square feet. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, just listen to that and make sure I’m staying where my feet are and owning what I’m supposed to own.” — Clark Phillips

One of the people that knows him best, Utes cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, believes Phillips is a first-round talent, despite the projections. 

“I believe that without question. He’s a first-round talent. Will he be taken there? I don’t know. I hope so,” he said. “It’s projected that there will be five or six cornerbacks go in the first round and another four in the second. He’s anywhere from four to nine on some boards. It’s a possibility. I just want his name to be called and then let’s go play football.”

Phillips knows that where he’s taken in the draft is out of his hands.  

“It’s one of those things where you can’t control it. You’ve just got to own your 20 square feet,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do, just listen to that and make sure I’m staying where my feet are and owning what I’m supposed to own.”

‘Nobody will work harder than him’

Shah and Phillips, the 5-foot-9, 184-pound unanimous All-America selection and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, have had many conversations about the draft. 

“Like I told him, it makes no difference where you go. Right now, that’s the only thing that matters to him. Where am I going to go? What round will I be taken? Which team am I going to? It’s so secondary to what’s going to happen to him,” Shah said. “What I told him, and what I believe is, ‘Wherever you go will be the team that drafted you and wanted you.’

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“The team that was at the Pro Day and every other evaluation site to let you know that, ‘Hey, we believe in your talent. We’re going to give you the best opportunity to excel.’ Once it’s been decided where you’re going, now you can breathe and get to work. Nobody, nobody, nobody will work harder than him.”

During his three-year Utes career, Phillips, the highest-rated recruit ever landed by the Utes, recorded 110 tackles, nine interceptions — including four pick-sixes — 21 pass deflections and one fumble recovery. He was also a team leader that helped Utah capture back-to-back Pac-12 championships.

But Phillips didn’t wow anybody at the NFL combine in February with his numbers or metrics.

“That was a nerve-wracking experience because I’m a kid that grew up watching dudes and their college film,” Phillips said. “Being a kid, watching it on TV and telling my dad, ‘That dude is slow, how did he make so many plays?’ Then you run your 40 and it’s like, dang, those guys are pretty fast. It’s a humbling experience as well. You’re out there with the best of the best. All of the top dudes and you’re just competing.”

But he said after Utah’s Pro Day that he’s a football player — and he’s proven that over the years. 

“It was a weight lifted off my shoulders at the combine. It was more, OK, we’re not training for a track meet; we’re training for football,” Phillips said. “That’s what I looked at it like. I’m a football player. I guard receivers. I make football plays. I don’t play the 40; I don’t play shuttle; I play football. I’m just glad to get that out of the way and play football in front of these guys.”

When Shah talks to NFL personnel about Phillips, he’s gotten the same questions. And he responds with the same answers. 

“Do you think he can play both inside and outside? Look at the film. Is he going to be a good tackler? Look at the film. He’s missed some tackles, sure, and everybody else that you have ahead of him has missed tackles,” Shah said. “Look at the film and you’ll see he can get off blocks. He can diagnose route concepts. He can blitz effectively. All the things that you want in an inside and outside cornerback.

“He’s played against phenomenal talent for the three years that he was here both inside and outside. And everybody says, ‘Is he really as good a kid as he portrays?’ Better. He’s better than that,” he continued. “His mother and father are completely strong in their faith. His brother plays ball back East.

“He’s phenomenal. He’s one of those kids that you don’t get that collection of good attributes often. Not like that. But they all ask the same questions. ‘Will he be a good player for us at this level?’ He’ll be better than you guys think. He will. He’ll be phenomenal.”

Faith and family

Phillips, who hails from Lakewood, California, is humbled and grounded. His foundation is 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.”

After originally committing to Ohio State out of La Habra High, Phillips flipped his commitment to Utah because, in part, he loved the family atmosphere within the Utes’ program. 

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

Phillips’ parents attended Pro Day to support their son. 

“They’ve been there every step of the way, from my mom staying on me in academics and on the field and my dad, when he used to get me and my brother up at 6 a.m. sometimes to work out,” he said. “That’s all we knew. He instilled that dog and that grind mentality. You get up and go work for whatever you want — whether it’s football, badminton. If I was doing anything, I would have had that dog, that ability to get up and go do it.”

‘He makes your team better’

Shah has seen firsthand how Phillips has made not only the cornerbacks room and the defense better at Utah, but the entire team. The NFL franchise that drafts Phillips will learn that as well, Shah said. 

“Just like we were, some team is going to be like, ‘Wow, he makes your team better.’ He will make not only the cornerbacks room better, the safeties room better, he makes the whole team better. People like workers,” Shah said. “People love people that show up every day, don’t complain, and just work.

“You talk about leadership — he was the consummate leader. It took him time to become that leader. But when he finally said, ‘I am a leader’ and he viewed himself in that manner, we became a better unit. I believe that will be the same thing that will happen to him at the next level.”

Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III warms up before game against Stanford Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Phillips is excited about other Utah players that have a shot at playing in the NFL.

“I’ve got all the faith in the world in my guys. It’s exciting as heck to look around and there are a lot of dudes that are good,” he said. “Not only on this team but I even look at the guys that will come out next year and I’m like, ‘We’ve got dudes.’ I see why we’ve won championships.”

With so many defensive backs out of Utah that have been drafted over the years, Phillips is looking forward to carrying that banner. 

“It’s a legacy, man. It’s a standard those guys set before me. I’m just trying to live it out and I’m trying to keep it going. And on top of that, establish my own legacy as well,” he said. “We all have a lot of things in common but one of those things is the coaching — RSNB — relentless, smart, nasty ballhawks.

“I feel like that goes straight into life as well. It’s one of those things that not only on the football field that you take but it goes into being a great man and a great father.”

Proving doubters wrong

Throughout his life, Phillips has dealt with others doubting him because of his diminutive stature. It appears that’s happening again ahead of the draft. 

But Shah is looking forward to watching Phillips show that he can play, and excel, in the NFL. 

“I don’t believe anybody will make more of an impact than he will right now. He will study and absorb the entire playbook. He will look at more film than anybody that they’ve drafted or similar position,” he said. “It’s just him always being told the same thing since he was a little boy — you’re not tall enough, you’re not fast enough. He’s just proven everybody wrong over and over again.

“He will continue to prove everybody wrong and those that doubted him and don’t think his game translates to the next level. I’m just so happy for the day to happen and for him to get the anxiety off his body and whatever that team is, I’m an instant fan of that team. I better not say that because I’m an AFC West guy. I can’t love everybody. But I love a lot of teams. I’ll be a fan of his and I’ll watch him closely.”

Shah is confident about Phillips’ future.

“I expect, just like (former Ute cornerback and current Chicago Bear) Jaylon Johnson did, and the boys that came before him, will give me a call and say, ‘Coach, this is exactly what we do — they just call it something a little different.’ Football is football is football,” he said. “It doesn’t change regardless of the level. It’s the same. Clark’s been amazing from Day 1 at all levels. I don’t expect anything to change — when God blesses him at the next level.”

Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III lines up for a play during game against Washington State, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in Pullman, Wash. Phillips was the highest-ranked player to ever sign with the Utes coming out of high school; now he is taking his considerable talents to the NFL. | Young Kwak, Associated Press