Without being critical of junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson’s choice to skip the Alamo Bowl and prepare for the NFL draft, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham appreciates how all of the team’s healthy seniors intend to play against Texas on New Year’s Eve in San Antonio.
The Utes’ falling below the New Year’s Six level by losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game created the possibility that multiple players would follow a college football trend by shutting down their Utah careers. All-Pac-12 safety Julian Blackmon has been ruled out with a knee injury; otherwise, all of the seniors will play.
“It speaks volumes, in my opinion — finishing what you started,” Whittingham said of the seniors. “They’ve been a great group to be around all season long [and] ever since they got on campus. That’s very gratifying and rewarding and it speaks to who they are as a group.”
Being part of the Hallandale Trio subset of the senior class may have encouraged running back Zack Moss to play one last time for Utah, joining quarterback Tyler Huntley and receiver Demari Simpkins. Defensive end Bradlee Anae, a consensus All-American, is partly motivated by needing another sack to break the school career record. Beyond that, Anae said, his participation reflects “just the culture — you start something, you finish it.”
Anae added, “Different guys have different situations where they would sit out, but for us, we're all healthy, we're all ready to go and end it on a strong note. We think the team deserves it, the fans deserve it, and the coaches.”
Johnson, who has completed his degree at Utah, was hurt in the regular-season finale vs. Colorado, before playing in the Pac-12 title game. His newborn daughter lives in his hometown of Fresno, Calif., possibly influencing his decision to miss the Alamo Bowl.
Utah concluded the NCAA’s December signing period with another addition Friday, landing Kenzel Lawler, a cornerback from Roosevelt High School in Corona, Calif. The school produced former Ute safety Marcus Williams, who’s now with the New Orleans Saints.
The Utes' recruiting effort is ranked No. 5 in the Pac-12 and No. 32 nationally by 247Sports, and that scorecard disregards the five returning missionaries who will be joining the program as part of this class. Utah may add another player or two in February, although any available scholarships could be taken by transfers, Whittingham said.
The signing of highly ranked cornerback Clark Phillips III of La Habra (Calif.) HS came after Whittingham's initial news conference. The coach raved about Phillips on Friday, describing him as one of the “guys that can come in and help right away.”
Phillips had committed to Ohio State, but switched to Utah after his primary recruiter, Jeff Hafley, became Boston College’s head coach. Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah was rewarded for staying in touch with Phillips, Whittingham said.
Phillips is “the whole package at cornerback,” Whittingham said. “He's got speed, quickness, great ball skills, his hips are fluid, ultra-competitive.”
With the losses of Johnson and senior cornerbacks Josh Nurse and Tareke Lewis, it would not be surprising if Phillips starts as a freshman.
Alamo Bowl updates
Ute receiver Bryan Thompson, injured in a Nov. 23 game at Arizona, has returned to practice and will be available vs. Texas, Whittingham said.
Utah concluded a 10-day phase of bowl practices on campus Saturday. The players get a break, then will resume practicing Dec. 26 in San Antonio. In-state players will fly from Salt Lake City to Texas on Christmas Day. Others will go to their homes around the country and then travel directly to the bowl site, with the NCAA allowing the school to provide such funding, Whittingham said.