SALT LAKE CITY — When Clark Phillips III flipped his commitment from Ohio State to Utah, the four-star cornerback instantly became the Utes’ highest-rated recruit ever and the crown jewel of the Utes’ 2020 recruiting class.

The 5-foot-10, 191-pound freshman from La Habra High in California arrived on campus in the winter, graduating high school early and enrolling in classes for the spring 2020 semester. Phillips went through winter conditioning with the team and arrived to Monday’s first day of spring practice with huge expectations.

The hope is that Phillips can live up to those expectations and contribute immediately at the nickel back position. Last year, Utah’s cornerback position was stacked — Jaylon Johnson excelled at left corner, being named a second-team All-American and All-Pac-12 first teamer. Josh Nurse and Tareke Lewis split time at left corner, and Javelin Guidry was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention at nickel back. Both Johnson and Guidry declared for the NFL draft, while Nurse and Lewis graduated, so Utah’s cornerback room is pretty young heading into spring camp.

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“A lot of guys left, but there’s a lot of guys here that I think are really, really good as well,” Phillips said. “A spring like this, I think a lot of guys are going to prove themselves and establish themselves. I can’t wait to compete.”

Junior Bronson Boyd, who has played 23 games during his college career, is the most experienced of the group. Boyd, who had three tackles last year, tops the spring two-deep at left corner, while JaTravis Broughton, a sophomore who had eight tackles and an interception in 2019, is No. 1 on the spring depth chart at right corner. Listed at nickel back are Malone Mataele — a sophomore with four tackles last year — and Phillips, with the two listed with an “or” designation on the depth chart.

Phillips wants to come in and immediately make an impact for the Utes at cornerback.

“I’d be crazy if I said that wasn’t my goal. That’s definitely my goal. I know that we’ve got a lot of great guys in here and I can’t wait to compete,” Phillips said. 

Phillips’ recruiting offer list was a who’s who of college football royalty, with offers from LSU, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Michigan, Notre Dame, Georgia, Florida, USC, Auburn, Penn State, Texas and Oregon, among others. Phillips originally had a verbal commitment to Ohio State in summer 2019, but ended up signing with the Utes in December 2019. His comfort level with Utah’s coaches — head coach Kyle Whittingham, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, who was one of Phillips’ main recruiters, along with Freddie Whittingham — was a huge reason he chose Utah.

“It really came down to my comfort level with the staff, with the university. I just felt like this was the place for me,” Phillips said. “Ever since I started to talk to my coaches, about a couple of years ago now, I felt like there was a genuine love and respect that they had and that we shared on both ends of the relationship, and so I feel like that’s what really made the decision easy for me to come here.” 

247 Sports rated Phillips the fifth-best cornerback in the 2020 class and the 50th best recruit in the country. Scalley said that there’s two big things that make him excited about Phillips.

“No. 1 would be the athleticism, his ability to play at this level. No. 2 would be his football IQ. When we had him on a visit and we had been recruiting him for a while, his football IQ is really, really good,” Scalley said. “His ability to come in and play as a freshman really comes down to him learning the defense. Coach Shah has done a good job of getting him ready.”

Likewise, Whittingham is excited about Phillips’ potential.

“We were so excited because he’s a heck of a player. He’s got a lot of ability, he was a very highly recruited kid out of high school and what we’ve seen so far has been very good,” Whittingham said.

But even the best high school football player has a lot to learn when he joins a P5 football program.

“If you’re a freshman, you’re going to be making mistakes. It’s how you make them. Are you making them full speed or are you giving everything you’ve got? That’s what we’re looking for,” Scalley said.

“I’m learning. It’s Day 1, but I feel like I’m only going to get better,” Phillips said.

As he adjusts to the college game, Phillips will need to keep adjusting his technique and his game.

“It’s just staying focused, keeping my head down and working. Coming from high school, this is a different experience for me. It’s college, this is my first time, my first practice today. I’m taking everything in stride and just staying humble and staying hungry.” Clark Phillips III

“It’s completely different from high school in terms of technique,” Phillips said. “Me and Coach Shah’s conversations from when I was in high school and he was recruiting me were a lot different than they are now. Now it’s more like he’s coaching me up and every little thing he’s on me in terms of critiquing my technique and making sure that I’m ready.”

Enrolling in school early gives Phillips an advantage. He gets to go through winter conditioning and spring football with the team and learn the defense, it gives him time to get used to college life and university academics, and he gets to adapt to a new climate and culture in Utah so by the time fall rolls around and games start, he will feel right at home.

Cornerback Clark Phillips III runs a drill as he and the rest of the University of Utah football team open spring camp at the Eccles Football Facility practice fields in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

He’s even taken one of the first steps anyone from a warm climate makes when they come to Salt Lake City: buying a winter coat.

“I’ve been suffering, wearing double hoodies … but now I’ve got a winter coat,” Phillips said.

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How does Phillips deal with the high expectations? 

“It’s just staying focused, keeping my head down and working. Coming from high school, this is a different experience for me. It’s college, this is my first time, my first practice today. I’m taking everything in stride and just staying humble and staying hungry,” Phillips said.

Whittingham was impressed by Phillips during winter conditioning and on the first day of spring ball and sees good things ahead.

“He’s got a lot to learn, obviously — he still should be in high school — but we think he’s got a very bright future,” Whittingham said.

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