Sharieff Shah is not in the business of lying to his players, especially his young, inexperienced players.
“That’s the worst thing you can do, is lie to the babies,” Shah, the University of Utah’s 11th-year cornerbacks coach said after a recent practice. “Don’t lie to them. I tell them most of the time they’re awful, and that’s the truth. If you’re playing really well, I’m going to tell you that you’re playing really well.
“I don’t sugarcoat it because sugar is made for sugar cookies. I don’t sell them or buy them.”
All Shah had at his disposal in 2020 were young, inexperienced guys.
Clark Phillips III, though the highest-rated recruit in the history of the program, was just a true freshman. JT Broughton played in 14 games as a freshman in 2019, but 2020 represented his first opportunity as a starter. Malone Mataele was similar to Broughton, having some experience, but sliding into a primary role for the first time.
Last preseason, Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham voiced his concern with his young secondary multiple times. As it turns out, it wasn’t very often Shah was telling his guys that they were awful.
Instead, Shah would walk into the Eccles Football Center on Monday mornings and tell, for instance, Broughton, that he had an all-conference performance in the game two days earlier.
“They say, “Coach, how do you know that?” I’ve watched a few of them, I’ve seen a few of them, and I know what they’re supposed to look like,” Shah said, stifling a smile and laughter as he spoke. “I kept telling him that because he really kept playing that way and, well, he was an all-conference DB. He’s like, ‘Coach, I thought you were lying to me.’”
Added Broughton: “I guess we didn’t think it was a big deal. We started to see more plays being made, it was just amazing.”
As he always promises to do, Shah was not lying to Broughton. When the dust settled on last season’s COVID-impacted five-game schedule, Broughton was named All-Pac-12 honorable mention, and Shah’s cornerbacks performed better than any reasonable expectation placed upon them before the season started in November.
“We thought he was going to be pretty good, he turned out to be very good,” Whittingham said earlier this week. “It’s not a big surprise because of his skillset and the tools that he has. He was the state champion in the sprints in Oklahoma (as a senior at Union High School in 2019), 6-foot, 190 pounds. He’s got it all. He looks like a prototypical corner, he has that blazing speed and he put it together sooner than we anticipated. We had an inkling he was going to be good, but he exceeded that.”
This group is no longer a collective concern because of youth, but rather a strength thanks to the experience of 2020, which featured the ability to play in games while not losing eligibility after the NCAA froze the eligibility clock last fall in the face of the pandemic.
With that, Phillips is again in line to start opposite Broughton after registering 25 total tackles, a fumble recovery and three passes defended in 2020. His 36-yard pick-six late in the season finale vs. Washington State capped 31 unanswered Ute second-half points for a 45-28 win.
It has long been thought that Phillips will eventually slide inside to nickel, but that is not going to be the case unless there is an injury. Whittingham estimates that the Lakewood, Calif., native is spending about 90% of his practice time outside at cornerback, the rest being spent inside in an effort to stay sharp. Mataele continues to get the majority of his reps at nickel, where he started twice in 2020.
The cornerback depth beyond Broughton, Phillips III and Mataele is a fluid situation.
Second-year true freshman Caine Savage is back at cornerback after spending spring practice at wide receiver for depth purposes. Shah singled out another second-year true freshman, Faybian Marks, as someone who “made some plays” in 2020.
One wildcard option at the position is second-year true freshman Zemaiah Vaughn, who is moving from safety to cornerback after playing in four games as a walk-on in 2020. Shah indicated the move from safety to cornerback will be permanent.
But with his top corners, Shah wants to tell it like it is: “The level of confidence exponentially grows, and you can see it. No situation is foreign to them anymore. It’s just not.”