From about 50 yards away, he does not look like an imposing or intimidating figure.
As he comes closer and closer, things start to come into focus. Shirtless, his trapezius muscles pop and his 190-pound frame is chiseled. A large tattoo of a lion head on his upper right arm is very noticeable as he is now face-to-face with reporters for the first time.
Before questions are asked, loose introductions are made. He has a firm handshake, he flashes a wide smile. He is personable, he is polite, he doesn’t appear to even be sweating after the University of Utah football team just went through its first of 15 spring practices on Monday afternoon.
Meet Clark Phillips III, the Utes’ newest nickel back, not to mention the University of Utah’s highest-rated recruit ever.
Forget football just for a moment. Phillips, a Lakewood, Calif., native, should still be a senior at La Habra High School. Instead, he enrolled at Utah early, in time for spring ball, and has to get used to being a college freshman. Yes, football is part of that acclimation, but there are others factors, too.
“It’s different,” Phillips said with that smile flashing. “The only thing I can think of that immediately comes to mind is the weather. California is sunny right now, so the fact it’s snowing is so different.”
Sure, the weather in Salt Lake City in March is radically different this time year of compared to that of Southern California, but Phillips was probably prepared for that, right?
“Yeah, I actually just purchased one,” Phillips jokingly said when asked if he owned a winter coat. “I’ve been suffering, wearing double hoodies and things like that, but I have a winter coat now.”
Phillips is here, battling the elements because of circumstance, but also because Utes cornerbacks coach Sharieff Shah is good at his job.
As a consensus four-star recruit and the No. 50 overall prospect in the Class of 2020 according to 247sports, Phillips was courted by some of the biggest programs in the country, Ohio State, USC and Alabama among them. His verbal commitment to the Buckeyes on June 21, 2019, with co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeff Hafley as the lead recruiter, surprised no one.
On Dec. 13, Hafley left Columbus to become the head coach at Boston College. Shah, Utah’s lead recruiter for Phillips, had stayed in contact the whole time and saw the opportunity to pounce. On Dec. 14, Phillips, who had not yet been able to sign a National Letter of Intent with Ohio State, was in Salt Lake City for an official visit.
On Dec. 19, Phillips signed an NLI with Utah, putting a bow on the program’s best-ever recruiting cycle.
“Me and Coach Shah’s conversations from when I was in high school and he was recruiting me are a lot different than what they are now,” Phillips said. “Now, it’s more of him coaching me up and every little thing, he’s on me in terms of critiquing my technique and making sure I’m ready for days like this, spring ball.”
These early days of spring practice are to be taken with a large grain of salt. By rule, the Utes spent the first two days on Monday and Tuesday in helmets, and were to add shoulder pads for practice No. 3 on Thursday. Utah will take next week off for spring break, but when the Utes return, they will be in full pads for the first time on March 17. Only then can a fair, full evaluation of what Phillips is capable of begin.
For no other reason than the four-star ranking, expectations for Phillips were bound to be big. Kyle Whittingham didn’t feel the need to shy away from that notion, given he has Phillips listed on the spring two-deep at nickel back along with sophomore Malone Mataele, who backed up the now-departed Javelin K. Guidry in 2019. Phillips and Mataele are separated by an “OR” on the depth chart.
Taking the early days of spring practice with a grain of salt includes that spring depth chart, but if nothing else, Phillips’ appearance on there is an indication of what the coaching staff thinks of its newest prized recruit.
“For me, it’s just about staying focused, keeping my head down and working because coming from high school, it’s different,” Phillips. “This is college, my first practice today, so like I said, I feel like I’m only going to get better.”
CLARK PHILLIPS III AT A GLANCE
• Nickel back, 5-foot-10, 191 pounds
• Consensus four-star recruit (Rivals, ESPN, 247sports)
• Highest-rated prospect in program history, per 247sports composite
• Lakewood, Calif. native (La Habra High School)
• Former Ohio State commit
• Flipped to Utah on Dec. 19
“The defense, it’s a competitive situation,” Whittingham added. “We lost nine starters on D. We have Devin (Lloyd) and Mike [Tafua] coming back. A lot of opportunity. We have some really talented guys coming in the fall that will only add to that.”
Whittingham’s defensive backfield will look radically different this fall. Guidry was an All-Pac-12 nickelback before leaving for the NFL draft. Jaylon Johnson manned one cornerback spot before also bailing for the NFL as a junior. The other cornerback spot belonged to two seniors, Josh Nurse and Tareke Lewis. With so much defection and graduation, there is clearly a lane for Phillips to slide in there immediately.
“A lot of guys left, but there are a lot of guys here I think are really, really good as well,” Phillips said. “Spring like this, a lot of guys are going to compete, so I can’t wait.”
On Tuesday, the Utes conducted much of their second practice outdoors, which meant reporters were able to watch. At one point, wideouts and cornerbacks went 1-on-1, with a quarterback, primarily Cam Rising or Jake Bentley, throwing without a pass rush bearing down.
Early in the drill, Phillips was matched up with Britain Covey, now a redshirt junior after shutting his 2019 season down after four games due to injury. After the snap, Covey jabbed-stepped, then went inside on Phillips, blowing past him. Had the pass been on target, it would have been a touchdown. That was an education for the youngster against an experienced, savvier Covey.
A short time later, 6-foot-3 Solomon Enis, a big-play, downfield threat expected to make an impact next fall, gained separation on Phillips on a short route, but Phillips recovered to register an excellent pass breakup.
That’s what the Utes are likely to get out of Phillips this month and into next month. He will look like a freshman at some points, but he will also show flashes of his potential at other points. All of this is in an effort to get him ready to contribute immediately, if not start, beginning with the 2020 opener vs. BYU on Sept. 3 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“I’d be crazy if I said that wasn’t my goal,” Phillips said. “That’s definitely my goal, but I know we have a lot of great guys in here. I can’t wait to compete.”