When opposing offenses line up against Utah’s secondary next fall, it might be tempting for them to figure they’ll have a big advantage, in terms of experience, considering the number of underclassmen at cornerback that populate the Utes’ defensive backfield.
But those corners won’t be typical underclassmen.
Because the NCAA paused the eligibility clock for football players due to the pandemic, they will maintain their eligibility from the previous season.
Freshman Clark Phillips and sophomore Ja’Travis Broughton started all five games for Utah at cornerback in 2020 while sophomore nickelback Malone Mataele earned two starts last season — all without losing any eligibility.
“We were probably one of the teams that benefited the most from that in terms of getting your younger guys (play) meaningful reps and getting them confidence,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley.
Phillips, who is the highest-rated recruit in the history of Utah’s football program, is happy to have this freshman do-over.
“It was a blessing because coming up this year I’ll still be a freshman. I made some mistakes that I’ll grow from. As a team, we gained five games of experience.” — Clark Phillips
“It was a blessing because coming up this year I’ll still be a freshman,” he said. “I made some mistakes that I’ll grow from. As a team, we gained five games of experience.”
Cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said nothing can compensate for game experience.
“Invaluable because on paper it will be the same group. Freshmen will be the designation at the end of the name. But in terms of accumulated reps and game-time experience, absolutely invaluable,” he said. “We can talk all day in the film room, we can get out and practice and go against our own guys.
“But when you have an opportunity to play a real game, make a real tackle, get a PBU, or interception, as a young player, it develops and builds confidence that there’s no substitute for. It really will pay massive dividends for us going forward.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do this spring. Shah is looking for vocal leaders to rise up.
“What you try to look for now, even with a young group that has a little bit of experience, who is going to emerge as that leader? We can’t sit back and say, ‘We’re all young.’ Now, yes, we have a little bit of experience,” he said. “Now I’m looking for, and I’m pushing to get, a leader out of this young group. Right now I have two guys that are starting to emerge — Clark Phillips and Ja’Travis Broughton, who I absolutely love. Their leadership, just by how they conduct their business every day, is what’s going to be exciting.”
Broughton embraces that role as a leader.
“It puts a lot on me. I’ve got teammates look up to me,” he said. “I have to be on my ‘A’ game every day and come with that energy.”
Because the corners have some experience, they’re further ahead in terms of their techniques, footwork and their comfort level when it comes to playing man coverage.
“Anytime you have reps and game time under your belt, you start to see flashes and a lot more consistency,” Mataele said. “It’s fun to get out there and see the young guys improve on a daily basis. … Every day we’re sharpening our ax and trying to perfect the small details that will elevate our game.”
One thing Shah is trying to teach his cornerbacks is using “loud and forceful” voices to call out defensive adjustments when receivers are going in motion or lining up in different formations.
“Open up your mouths and speak,” Shah tells them. “I don’t have enough vocal players in my room. That’s what I’m trying to develop right now.”
During practice, Shah likes to stand far away from his corners and asks them to tell him the defensive call. They respond, “Coach, I have to yell it.”
Well, that’s the point.
“There you go. ‘Start using your outside voice. We’re not in the library. Speak up and yell it to me,’” Shah said. “You have to train that vocal muscle. Make them scream and yell. When there’s 50,000 or 60,000 or 70,000 people, you’re going to get drown out. If you’re not used to communicating in a loud and forceful way, you’re not going to help us.”
Indeed, for all the experience they gained last season, they played inside empty stadiums. This season, the venues are expected to be full, and loud, again. That will be something new that they’ll need to adjust to.
“The thing that the younger guys have not experienced yet is a crowd,” Scalley said. “It’s what an opposing crowd can do to you; what a home crowd can do in terms of getting you excited and pumped up.
“We’re excited that we’re able to get Rice-Eccles (Stadium) going. I know those young players, that’s something they’ve talked about during the offseason, is gaining an advantage with the home crowd.”