Among the position group decisions looming at the University of Utah, what to do with the secondary was the biggest question mark before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and it remains so as the Pac-12 holds on to hopes of playing a conference-only schedule this fall.
To understand the situation, just take a look at the Utes’ backend starters from the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon. One cornerback, All-American Jaylon Johnson, left for the NFL Draft as a junior. The other cornerback that night, Josh Nurse, was a senior. Like Johnson, junior nickel back Javelin K. Guidry opted for the NFL Draft.
Free safety Julian Blackmon was an All-American last fall as a senior in his lone season at the position, while senior Terrell Burgess was an All-Pac-12 strong safety in 2019.
For a Utah defense that ranked second nationally last season in total defense (269.2 yards per game) and No. 1 in the Pac-12 in passing yards allowed (187.4 yards per game), now what?
What is clear is that the unit is going to be young. Four-star freshman Clark Phillips III headlines the youth as the highest-rated recruit in the history of the program. Phillips III landed on the spring two-deep at nickel back. He is expected to be a Day 1 starter, either at nickel or on the outside at cornerback.
The remainder of the cornerback situation is fluid. Redshirt junior Bronson Boyd has played in 23 career games, but only appeared on defense three times last season. Sophomore JaTravis Broughton is in a similar position. He played in all 14 games as a true freshman last fall, but only saw time on the defense in four of them.
Phillips III is versatile enough to line up at either position, but the thinking is he projects as a nickel. It would be helpful if Boyd and Broughton could secure outside spots, freeing Phillips III to move inside.
A handful of young guys could factor in here, including freshmen Caine Savage, Kenzel Lawler and Faybian Marks. Of the three, Savage was the only one on campus for spring practice before the pandemic canceled the remainder of it.
The safety position has more experience, but questions will persist. Vontae Davis projects as a starter at one safety spot as a senior with 28 games as a Ute, but his contribution in the secondary has been minimal as he waited his turn on the depth chart. Whether or not R.J. Hubert is healthy enough to play will be a key storyline if and when training camp gets going. The junior suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Pac-12 title game.
Four-star freshman Nate Ritchie and three-star classmate Ben Renfro could figure into the safety mix during training camp.