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Utah’s secondary is young and talented — much like it was in 1977 when four freshmen were key contributors

Clark Phillips III participates in the Utes’ first full scrimmage of fall camp. Phillips III is the highest profile newcomer in the Utes’ secondary and could potentially start at either cornerback position or at nickel back.
Utah Athletics

The year was 1977 and Wayne Howard had just taken over as Utah head football coach. This was just five years after freshmen were allowed to start playing varsity football and Howard brought four talented defensive backs up from Southern California, where he had coached his whole career.

The four freshmen were Jeff Griffin, Derek Daniels, Forrest Henry and James Wilson. They all hailed from the Los Angeles area and took jersey numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4, respectively.

In the preseason media guide, each was listed as third string, but by the time the season began, Griffin was a starting cornerback and Daniels the starting free safety. Griffin ended up third on the team in tackles, while leading the team in pass breakups. Daniels was fifth in tackles and returned two interceptions for 83 yards.

Henry became a starter for his final three seasons, Wilson was a starting safety for two years, while Daniels had his career shortened by a serious knee injury. Griffin ended up being one of the best defensive backs in Utes history, starting all 45 games of his career, earning all-WAC honors three times.

Now, 43 years later, the Utes may see more than one true freshman in the starting defensive backfield, which has happened rarely, if ever, in Ute history. The reason is because the Utes have no secondary starters returning and also have one of their best bunch of secondary recruits ever.

Over the years, the Utes have had one true freshman start in the secondary on a given season, most recently Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson. Before that, other freshmen who have started include the likes of Eric Weddle, Brian Blechen, Eric Rowe and Marcus Williams.

“We’ve had freshmen before and you’re going to see true freshmen out there this year,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “We’ve been very pleased with their development.”

The leading candidate to become a starter is Clark Phillips III, the highly-touted four-star recruit from Southern California, who was headed to Ohio State before he had a change of heart and decided to come to Utah.

Phillips has been working at both the cornerback and nickel positions and so far has been as impressive as advertised.

“He has the mentality of a young man who wants to play as a true freshman,” said Scalley. “He studies and his downtime is spent watching film. He’s much like Jaylon Johnson in that aspect, very mature for his age. He understands what’s at stake and the responsibility on his shoulders. We’re excited what he’s able to bring to the defense.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham calls his cornerback crew “raw, but talented,” and adds “Clark Phillips is going to be a factor for us. He can play both inside and outside. He’s right there knocking at the door for a starting spot.”

Lone Peak’s Nate Ritchie celebrates after intercepting a Highland pass football game at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018.
Lone Peak’s Nate Ritchie celebrates after intercepting a Highland pass during a football game at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. Ritchie, a true freshman for the Utes, is expected to see significant playing time at safety in 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Among the safeties, Nate Ritchie out of Lone Peak High is the most likely true freshman to see a lot of playing time and perhaps end up a starter, according to Whittingham. He’s competing with R.J. Hubert and Vonte Davis, the projected starters right now.

So far, sophomore JT Broughton has been the most impressive cornerback according to Utes coaches, and Texas Tech transfer Bronson Boyd is also in the mix. Phillips could start at either cornerback position or the nickel back spot that Javelin Guidry filled much of the last three seasons.

Three other true freshmen the Utes are excited about are Faybian Marks from Richmond, Texas, Caine Savage from Buena Park, California, and Kenzel Lawler from Corona, California. with Marks getting the highest marks so far.

“Faybian shows really good glimpses of speed and quickness,” said cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah. “I love how Faybian is developing. He’s getting more comfortable in the coverages, he’s coming along nicely.”

Another cornerback who has been impressive so far is sophomore Malone Mataele of Placentia, California, who Whittingham said, “has been a pleasant surprise this fall. He’s really turned up his game and his production.”

When talking about his young cornerbacks, Shah compares it to “force feeding them through a water hose.” Then he sounds like the attorney he used to be, in discussing his secondary crew.

“It’s difficult to have a defense that’s predicated on understanding what you have to do in myriad situations,” he explained. “It’s difficult because as we continue to implement our defense, we won’t stop slowing down the pace with which we are introducing them to various concepts that they have to be able to decipher, apply and execute at a very high level. So it’s tough on them, but that’s what we’ve had to do. Thankfully we have a few more weeks to grind it out.”

Time is what the Utes need for their young secondary, echoes Whittingham.

“We have a whole stable of young corners that will be really good given time,” Whittingham said. “The time is compressed — hopefully they’re ready to line up and compete three weeks from tomorrow.”