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Why Clark Phillips III embraces the pressure, hype that comes with being the highest-rated signee in Utah history

Starting cornerback is about to make his much-anticipated debut Saturday in season opener against Arizona.   

Cornerback Clark Phillips III puts on his helmet as he and the rest of the University of Utah football team open spring camp in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020.
Cornerback Clark Phillips III puts on his helmet as he and the rest of the University of Utah football team open spring camp in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020. Phillips, a true freshman, will be in the starting lineup Saturday when the Utes take on Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When you’re the highest-rated recruit in the history of Utah’s football program, that carries some serious pressure.

But for freshman starting cornerback Clark Phillips III, who is about to make his much-anticipated debut Saturday (1:30 p.m., ESPN2) when the Utes host Arizona, pressure is relative.

“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,” Phillips said. “As to say the pressure that’s been added to my shoulders, I don’t feel that because of how hard I am on myself personally. That pressure is definitely needed … but I will say that the pressure that can be added from fans or even from seeing things online, it’s nothing like the pressure I give myself every day.”

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said Phillips has “a desire to play and be great,” adding that he has spent a lot of time studying film to “know the ins and outs of the defense, not just your specific assignment but how your assignment fits into the whole. Great work ethic, a very bright young man. We expect him to make plays for us.”

When asked how Phillips was able to earn a starting spot, coach Kyle Whittingham said, “He’s been one of our best three corners … He’s been outstanding since he got here. He’s got a ton of ability. He’s done a great job performing and getting better literally every day since he got here.”

Phillips originally committed to Ohio State during the summer of 2019 before eventually flipping to Utah. During the recruiting process, he received offers from some of the top programs in the country, including Alabama, Michigan, LSU, Notre Dame, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Penn State and Auburn.

The 5-foot-10, 191-pound four-star recruit graduated from La Habra High in California and enrolled at Utah in January.

“Coming in early was probably the best decision I’ve made, personally,” Phillips said. “Through the whole COVID process, it has given me a leg up in comparison to the other guys in the room. I’ve been here 10-11 months now. It’s given me a good amount of time to get acclimated and get used to things and learn the system.”

Since arriving on campus, Phillips faced a steep learning curve to learn the defense.

“When I first got up here, I really did struggle and it was really discouraging at first. I knew it was going to be tough learning the full defense when you’re talking about one of the best defenses in the country last year,” he said. “But I didn’t expect it to be the way it was. Being me, I was like, ‘I’ve got to figure it out.’

“I talked to coach (Sharrieff) Shah, coach Whitt and coach Scalley and I got into the film room countless hours. I still do that to this day. Spending time with guys that understand the defense the most has been the biggest aid for my process. In the beginning, it is discouraging as it should be for any freshman. Now, I can look back I can say, ‘I’m come from lower places but now I’m doing a lot better.’”

Phillips is one of several true freshmen in the program that will have the opportunity to make an immediate impact. The Utes lost a ton of talent to graduation and to the NFL during the offseason. But Whittingham was able to reload with young first-year players that have bright futures, like Phillips.

“Talent is the common thread with that class. I think that’s a big reason particularly on defense why we were able to land a lot of those guys,” he said. “The departure of nine starters pretty much all to the NFL created an opportunity for them. That was a big selling point as well where it was like, hey these guys are gone and there is a good opportunity to come right in and play right away. That’s a big reason why we were able to attract and land that type of quality.”

Can Phillips live up to the hype? As far as he’s concerned, that pressure is no more intense than the pressure he places on himself.