Morgan Scalley and Sharieff Shah were already going to have their hands full once spring practice rolled around.
Scalley, Utah’s defensive coordinator/safeties coach, and Shah, the Utes’ cornerbacks coach, watched junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson declare for the NFL Draft. Julian Blackmon was an All-American this fall in his lone season as a safety, but he was a senior. Terrell Burgess was a standout safety in 2019, but a senior, so he’s gone. Tareke Lewis and Josh Nurse combined to start 13 games opposite Johnson. When Johnson skipped the Alamo Bowl, Lewis and Nurse both started, but they too are seniors.
Scalley and Shah knew all this was coming, even Johnson declaring as a junior. Then, last Friday, three days after Utah’s season came to a close with a 38-10 loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl, Javelin Guidry, twice an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection as a nickel back, announced his intentions to leave Salt Lake City for the NFL draft.
With Guidry’s announcement, it didn’t take long for everyone to do the quick math. Scalley, whose defense terrorized most of the Pac-12 in 2019, will need to replace the entire secondary. So, now what?
A few things are for certain. Utah has a ton of young guys, both already in the program and coming next season to vie for these positions. The secondary will be young for sure, but Kyle Whittingham has options at his disposal. Additionally, Whittingham and Scalley have a proven ability to identify who belongs where on defense, then coach those guys up. Blackmon is a prime example of that. An All-Pac-12 cornerback as a sophomore and junior, Blackmon moved to safety this fall and became an All-American.
Once spring ball begins, attention on the secondary is going to zero in on Clark Phillips III, the No. 4-rated cornerback nationally in the class of 2020. Phillips III is the highest-rated commit in Utes history, according to the 247sports.com composite, and will challenge for immediate playing time.
His natural position is nickel back, but he may be one of Scalley’s best options as an outside cornerback. If Phillips takes one outside spot, who goes opposite him? Trying to project that this early is near-impossible, but freshmen LaCarea Pleasant-Johnson and JaTravis Broughton figure to be in the mix. Both three-star recruits in 2019, Broughton played in all 14 games, mostly on special teams, while Pleasant-Johnson took a redshirt.
If Phillips III gets the nod at nickel, the situation outside becomes even more muddled.
Cornerback will be the spotlight position come spring, but muddled is a good word to use for all spots in the secondary. At safety, keep an eye on Nate Ritchie, a three-star 2020 recruit out of Lone Peak High School. Including Ritchie, it’s a list of young and unproven talent Scalley will have to figure out.
Bottom line, Utah’s secondary is going to look radically different when the Utes next take the field, Sept. 5 against BYU. It’s up to Scalley and Shah to get the young guys up to speed, but at least they don’t have a shortage of options once spring practice arrives.