During spring practices, Utah’s defense is looking to get back into the business of playing the way it used to play. 

You know, like way back in 2019. 

The Utes were pretty stout defensively during the truncated 2020 season despite having to replace nine starters on that side of the ball.

But due to a host of reasons, including COVID-19 restrictions, Utah got away from a cornerbacks concept that has helped make the Utes defense vaunted for years. 

“The biggest thing is we’ve got to get back a little bit more to who we are in terms of coverage. We’re a man-coverage team,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “Last year, when we were going through phases of getting into fall camp we weren’t really allowed to play press-man because of the rules and regulations.

Sophomore defensive back sophomore JaTravis Broughton smiles during spring practice at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. | University of Utah Athletics

“So now that we have the protocols in place, we have to teach our guys man coverage and get better at press-man. And our guys are doing that. We were more of a zone coverage team last year. I believe we got better at our zone coverage ability. But we’re a man team and that’s where we’ve been able to make plays and get sacks and get disruptive.”

Scalley is eager to continue developing the young and promising cornerbacks in the program, including freshman Clark Phillips III, sophomore JaTravis Broughton, freshman Faybian Marks and sophomore Malone Mataele.

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“We have the bodies there, we have the guys that have ability, the speed, the athleticism to play the position. We’re about winning football and that’s team football,” Scalley said. “We love the guys we have at the corner position. ... We have the guys we feel we can develop into those roles.”

Phillips started in Utah’s five games last season and earned crucial experience without losing any eligibility due to the NCAA’s pandemic rules. 

“I feel like I did a great job of establishing myself in the defense and establishing myself in my personality on the defense and how it relates to the whole team,” he said. “We know who we are — ‘RSNB’, relentless, smart, nasty ballhawks — on the defensive side of the ball. I feel like that’s something I did and something I feel like I can get better.”

Knowing that he’ll be able to play man-press coverage is music to Phillips’ ears. 

“I love it. That was one of the pulling factors for me coming here. I wanted to come play a lot of man. That’s something I talked about with the coaches,” he said. “It was something I was excited about when I watched former DBs at the University of Utah. Watching them play, I was like, ‘Man, I really want to be a part of that.’

“Watching the D-line go to work and get to the quarterback and make him throw out some bad balls and give us picks in the  secondary, that’s something I wanted to be a part of. I think the coaches are doing the things needed right now for us to be a better man-coverage team for next year.”

Phillips said there’s a strong bond between all the young corners. 

“We’re super close because we’re in the same boat and we’re super young. We’re all experiencing the same things from growing pains. We’re all seeing each other’s growth. Seeing guys make good plays … it makes us a lot closer.”

And by playing man-press coverage this season, Phillips and his teammates will get a lot closer to opposing wide receivers, too, which is part of what makes Utah’s defense so good.