One of the biggest questions entering the 2023 season is how will Utah replace cornerback Clark Phillips III in the secondary?

A unanimous All-American at Utah, Phillips III was Utah’s lockdown corner. Now that the 2022 AP Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year is with the Atlanta Falcons, who will step up in his place?

While a single player may not be able to replace Phillips III’s production — nine interceptions, four pick-sixes, 30 pass deflections, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery over his career — cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah is confident that his room as a whole will be up to the task.

“Clark, his level of production, you don’t replace that,” Shah said. “You just have kids recognize, ‘This is what I can bring to the table.’

“If everybody in the room was just able to do what you thought they could — play good defense, be at least grading out at 88% and above, very, very few mental errors, good technician, make the tackles you’re supposed to make ... One person cannot pick up what Clark did, but I think by committee we can be pretty awesome.”

Senior JaTravis Broughton, junior Zemaiah Vaughn and senior transfer Miles Battle are the three players to watch at the outside corner positions.

Broughton, who started in all five of Utah’s games in 2020, suffered a season-ending injury early in the 2021 season before returning in 2022.

Last season, he played in all 14 games, starting 11 opposite Phillips III. He had 46 tackles, a sack and two pass deflections last year.

As the most experienced player in the cornerbacks room, Broughton will be one of the leaders, something that he is ready for.

“I’m definitely comfortable. I’ve been here for some years, so leadership takes time and I feel like I earned that position, so all the guys in the room and the defense, they listen to me and we all a big family,” Broughton said, adding that both his man coverage and off-man coverage have improved this offseason.

Shah has seen leadership emerge from all three of the outside cornerbacks.

“Sort of like that torch was passed to JaTravis Broughton, to Zemaiah Vaughn, interestingly to Miles Battle, who was a transfer from Ole Miss,” Shah said.

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Vaughn started Utah’s last six games a season ago and played in all 14. He had 25 tackles, nine pass deflections, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

A quarterback in high school, Vaughn converted to cornerback after walking on at Utah. Learning a new position was a learning curve for Vaughn, who said that he didn’t know how to play the position when he arrived at Utah.

“If I used to mess up, coach Shah didn’t let me come out, ain’t no breaks. He was going to make me do it until I got it right, so I’m really thankful for it,” Vaughn said.

At 6-foot-2, Vaughn’s height and length help him in coverage, but he also feels like his speed is a huge plus.

“I could stay with anybody in the country, I feel like,” Vaughn said, adding that he improved his man coverage over the offseason.

Battle arrives at Utah from Ole Miss, where he spent the last four seasons. In 2022, the 6-foot-4 cornerback appeared in all 13 games for the Rebels, starting three and finishing the season with 37 tackles, one forced fumble, an interception and four pass breakups.

“Miles has a very high aptitude. His physical skillset allows him to do things nobody else in the room can,” Shah said “And so getting him to be a better tackler, to get off blocks and use his length to his advantage, as well as believe that effort will win games if your effort is always at the maximum, I think will allow him to be the player he wants to.”

Those three players give Utah experience and dependability on the outside, but the nickelback position is more of a question mark.

Sophomore Sione Vaki spent time at nickelback last year, but it looks like he will go back to the safety position this season. True freshman Smith Snowden and redshirt freshmen Tao Johnson and Elijah Davis are competing for the nickel spot.

Davis and Johnson both impressed during spring camp, and Snowden enters as a four-star recruit who won the Deseret News’ Mr. Football award in 2022.

“Smith’s doing well. He’s a bright, bright football player. His dad was a football player. He’s been coached the right way in high school. Coach Shah in his initial meetings and my initial meetings with him, very high football IQ. Obviously we know his talent level,” defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said.

The biggest adjustment for Snowden from high school to college has been that college is faster and more physical, but he says he has adjusted to it well.

He chose Utah in part because of the coaching staff and Shah.

“Being from Utah, I feel like it was kind of a no-brainer just for the success they’ve been having in the previous years, and just the coaching staff and the stability of everyone here. It’s a special place,” Snowden said.

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Though the competition is intense, Snowden says Davis and Johnson have taken him under their wing.

“They’ve been really good to me. They’ve kind of brought me in and taught me all the plays. I can ask them any question I want to,” Snowden said.

As they enter the season, the cornerbacks room is tight-knit and united.

“Really just dial in, be focused. At the same time, love each other, teach each other, help each other out in the room,” Vaughn said.

Utah Utes cornerback JaTravis Broughton (4) breaks up the pass intended for Weber State Wildcats wide receiver Rashid Shaheed
Utah Utes cornerback JaTravis Broughton (4) breaks up the pass intended for Weber State Wildcats wide receiver Rashid Shaheed (22) during the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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