As the University of Utah’s truncated, COVID-impacted season approached last fall, Kyle Whittingham noted that the defense, specifically the secondary, was a question mark, and it was easy to understand why.
Those five secondary spots — two cornerbacks, the nickel back, and two cornerbacks — had zero career starts between them.
By the time the Utes’ five-game season concluded on Dec. 19 vs. Washington State, a few things were clear. The secondary, specifically the cornerbacks, had performed better than any reasonable expectation placed on them earlier that fall, and there is a lot of young, still-budding talent at those positions.
Furthermore, the secondary gained game experience in 2020 while not having to spend a year of eligibility doing it after the NCAA froze the eligibility clock in the face of the pandemic. So, instead of having no game experience, Utah is going through spring practice with its two primary cornerbacks, Clark Phillips III and JT Broughton, having started all five games, while Malone Mataele played in four games, including starting the last two at nickel.
“It was invaluable because on paper, it’ll be the same group,” longtime Utes cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said Wednesday morning. “In terms of reps, game-time experience, it was absolutely invaluable. We can talk all day in the film room and go practice against our own guys, but when you have the opportunity to play a real game, make a real tackle, get a [pass breakup], get a potential interception as a young player, it develops and builds confidence that there is just no substitute for. It will pay massive dividends for us going forward.”
Broughton was among the pleasant surprises of last season’s defense, earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors, but Phillips III left 2020 just as he started it, with a bunch of hype.
The highest-rated recruit in program history, Phillips III finished his first freshman season with 25 tackles, a fumble recovery, three passes defensed and an interception.
That one interception went 36 yards the other way for a touchdown, capping a wild second-half comeback to end the season against the Cougars. Aside from the pick-six, Phillips had three tackles, the one fumble recovery, and two pass breakups, lending credence to the notion that he is the future star everyone thinks he is capable of being.
“I think it was a blessing because coming out this year, I’ll still be a freshman, and that’s after gaining great film,” Phillips said. “I made some mistakes that I think I’ll grow from, that I know I’ll grow from. As a team, we just gained five games of experience.”
Utah finished last season No. 2 in the Pac-12 and 37th nationally in total defense (365 yards per game), but just 10th and 99th, respectively in passing yards allowed (257.2 per game). That latter statistic indicates there is still much work to be done as a unit, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t optimism moving forward.
Shah on Wednesday referenced former Utes All-American cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who had a productive rookie season in 2020 with the Chicago Bears. Specifically, Shah noted how hard Johnson practiced all the time, and how he challenged Johnson to be great on every single practice, every single day. That is how Shah is trying to challenge this current crop of cornerbacks.
“I think what you try to look for now, even with a group that has a little bit of experience, is who is going to emerge as a leader,” Shah said. “I’m looking for, and pushing, to get a leader out of this young group. Clark Phillips and JaTravis Broughton, their leadership, just by how they conduct their business every day, is what’s getting exciting.”