Los Angeles • The Ohio State Buckeyes know they’ll be missing two of their top receivers at the Rose Bowl. Star wideouts Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson have already opted out of Saturday’s game as they shift their focus to the NFL.
Even so, the biggest personnel question facing the University of Utah ahead of the Rose Bowl is what it plans to do at cornerback, a position beset by injuries and dwindling depth.
On Wednesday morning, Utes defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley left the door open that a position change is in the cards as the Pac-12 champion prepares to face Ohio State on New Year’s Day (2 p.m., ESPN).
“We’ve experimented with a bunch of different guys,” Scalley said during his one and only media appearance this week. “Obviously, you’ve got great athletes that come to our university and some have played on both sides of the ball, so we’ve experimented with a number of guys, and you’ll see on game day.
Pressed on the matter, specifically whether or not any of the experimentations have stuck, Scalley, with a smile and a laugh, offered a “no comment.”
Scalley’s comments are in some contrast to those made by cornerbacks coach Sharieff Shah made on Dec. 21. At that time, Shah was asked about the difficulties of players changing positions on short notice and with minimal time to prepare.
“In terms of changing positions, I only have the folks in my room, that have been in my room,” Shah said. “We haven’t asked anybody right now, at this point, to change positions. We’ve asked folks to do more, but we haven’t asked anybody to change positions. We’ve been pushing our kids that are here to know a little bit more. My nickel has to play outside corner, the safety has to be able to play the nickel. That’s the big thing right now.”
Clark Phillips III mans one outside cornerback spot, Malone Mataele is primarily the nickel, and there is a huge question mark at that other outside spot.
All-Pac-12 cornerback JT Broughton was lost for the season on Sept. 11 at BYU. Faybian Marks, who had played well in place of Broughton, suffered a season-ending injury at Arizona on Nov. 13. His replacement, Zemaiah Vaughn, left the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 3 with an injury and had season-ending surgery.
Whittingham, Shah, and now Scalley have all declined to dive into any specifics on personnel changes. Whittingham, though, did indicate on Dec. 13 when he met the media that a player or two switching positions to the secondary was an option in order to provide some depth. At that time, Whittingham said no decisions had been made.
“The biggest thing is confidence because, especially with a position like cornerback, confidence is going to be really, really fragile,” Phillips III said. “On the surface, it could be straight, but if you give up some stuff, if something happens, you have to be really confident and the team really has to build you up.
“You also have to get a lot of reps in and I think that’s why we’re doing some experimenting now. Even last week, we were doing it, we’ve been trying a lot of different guys. We’re just trying to find someone that understands the position, someone that can really do it, who is smart enough to learn on the fly as well.”
More so than the rest of his teammates, Phillips III is well-versed with Ohio State. After all, two-and-a-half years ago, he verbally committed to the Big Ten power as a four-star, top-50 recruit nationally in the class of 2020.
An All-Pac-12 cornerback this fall as a second-year freshman, Phillips III is now preparing to face the Buckeyes on Saturday, a coincidence that is not lost on the Lakewood, Calif. native.
“I was committed to Ohio State and I was excited about getting up there,” Phillips III said Wednesday, drawing a crowd of media covering the Buckeyes this week. “I was all the way in. I was talking to Coach (Ryan) Day every day, talking to Coach ‘Haf’ (former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Jeff Hafley) every day, and I was ready to enroll as soon as I committed, really.”
Hafley accepted the head coaching position at Boston College on Dec. 13, 2019. Phillips III visited Utah the next day. On Dec. 19, he decommitted from Ohio State, committed to Utah and signed his National Letter of Intent.
“It’s surreal, and it’s all glory to God,” Phillips III said. “It was a tough decision since I was all in, but it was a decision I had to make. I’m excited for the opportunity to play against those guys, and who would have thought that I’d be playing against them two years later.”