In hindsight, Clark Phillips Sr. wishes he’d brought a video camera to his son’s first game.
His son, Clark Phillips III, was a regular at family members’ football games and he was eager to get on the field himself, but he was too young to play youth flag football. So at the age of 3, the boy’s parents signed him up for soccer instead.
“As soon as they put him in the game, he took an angle like a safety and tackled the first kid he saw with the ball,” Clark Sr. recalled. “He’d been going to football games forever, and it was beautiful. He took a nice angle and everyone’s cracking up, but as a 3-year-old, he starts crying, ‘I don’t know what I did wrong.’
“We knew he was a ballplayer.”
That’s been confirmed many times over in the years since, even if his father still wishes he’d gotten that first tackle on film.
The Utah cornerback has set and met expectations at every level — from a standout career at La Habra High School in California to becoming one of the nation’s top recruits, from starting as a true freshman for the Utes to now seeing his name in the first round of NFL mock drafts.
So maybe the tale of that first tackle, and the camcorder that was not, is cautionary in a way.
Take it all in now, Utah fans, because these moments don’t last forever.
“We could tell he was different early”
Even before the soccer at the age of 3, Clark Sr. was already starting to get a clear picture of his son’s athletic prowess.
Clark Sr. can remember taking his son to the playground when he was around 18 months old.
“Other moms and dads looked at him weird because he would go across the monkey bars before he was even 2,” Clark Sr. said. “His upper body was crazy, he would do freaky things like that. We talk about him not being a tall corner, but he was the big kid when he was little until the fifth or sixth grade.
“We could tell he was different early.”
Being different early didn’t apply to just football, but also his personality.
For starters, Clark Sr. pastors at Unity Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, which his grandfather founded 60 years ago. Clark III and his three siblings took an active role in the church as children, their mother said.
“We had them making calls when they were younger, just to get comfortable making calls with adults,” La’Keisha Phillips said. A young Clark III got “comfortable standing in front of the church, doing speeches, those types of things because we both have been in different situations related to work, we’ve managed large teams, and we shared those things with the kids. ... He’s been groomed to talk to people, manage situations in a certain type of way.”
“He’s intentional, he’s purposeful”
Clark III’s youth football career saw him play running back, but as high school neared, Clark Sr. and those around him saw his lateral quickness, explosiveness and ability change direction as a better fit as a defensive back.
Whatever initial pushback there may have been to that change, Clark III took to the new position, started to like it and began to excel at it. That fierce competitiveness fostered on those youth soccer fields when he was 3 now fueled his desire to be “on the island” so to speak as a cornerback, engaging in 1-on-1 battles with wide receivers.
“I think the first impression was definitely how purposeful he is. He’s intentional, he’s purposeful,” said Frank Mazzotta, Clark III’s coach at La Habra High. “He’s not the typical 14-year old. He’s purposeful. He had his own goals and dreams and things weren’t going to stand in the way. He was very, very on point.”
That purposefulness and work ethic got Clark III into the starting lineup on the La Habra varsity team as a sophomore. By the fourth game of that season, everything changed. Against Colony, he intercepted three passes and returned all of them for touchdowns in a 49-14 win. By the time that weekend was over, UCLA and Washington had both offered. Those two Pac-12 programs soon had plenty of company.
In the spring of his sophomore year, Clark III was invited to a camp at Alabama. As Mazzotta tells it, Clark III performed well at what was essentially a private workout with him and other priority recruits. Not long after, with preparations for his junior season in motion, Clark III tells Mazzotta that he wants to play on offense in an effort to help his team.
“He played slot receiver, and he was unbelievable,” Mazzotta said. “When he made that commitment to offense, he wasn’t dabbling. He was going to be our best receiver.”
Clark III finished that season with 54 catches for 1,210 and 19 touchdowns.
The following spring as his junior year wound down, new Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian re-offered Clark III as a wideout. There was no chance Clark III was going to play offense in college, but that second offer speaks to how dynamic he was as a high-end high school prospect.
“I think you have to see it in practice, that’s where everything starts,” Mazzotta said. “It’s a telltale for players that I’ve had. No. 1, they love football. Great players love playing football, and that includes practice. Those types of guys aren’t just waiting for Fridays.”
“The timing was boom-boom”
The early maturity Clark III exuded helped carry him through a recruiting process in which he was a top-50 prospect, which means all the heavyweights, all the bluebloods contending for conference and national championships were calling.
As parents, Clark Sr. likened himself and La’Keisha to senior partners in the process, but things did not go over Clark III’s head. He asked questions, he wasn’t afraid to disagree. He was sharp, he vocalized his feelings, he didn’t fuss about anything.
Whatever disagreements there may have been, the family agreed on at least one important thing: Don’t use all five official visits. Use four, keep one in the bag. You never know what might happen.
Clark III officially visited Cal, Notre Dame, Ohio State and UCLA before committing to the Buckeyes. It stayed that way for almost six months, until Ohio State co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley, the primary recruiter for Clark III, was hired as the head coach at Boston College.
The next day, the entire Phillips family was in Salt Lake City for a last-minute official visit because, one, they had the foresight to sit on that last official visit and, two, Utes cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah kept in contact, even after the Ohio State commitment.
“We were literally talking to Utah at a going away party, with video showing Ohio State,” Clark Sr. said. “The timing was boom-boom.”
On Dec. 19, the first day of the early signing period, Clark III decommitted from Ohio State and signed a National Letter of Intent with Utah as the program’s highest-rated recruit ever according to the 247sports composite.
“To Utah’s credit, they were never really out of his recruitment,” Clark Sr. said. “We had some very big-name, top-10 schools actually hit us back after the Utah commitment upset that we didn’t give them first shot after he decommitted. ‘Why didn’t you call us, you were No. 1 on our board,’ but they stopped recruiting. We supported him and he went where he felt comfortable. Some guys stopped calling, stopped recruiting, stopped doing those little things and they lost because of it.”
Shah kept doing his job that summer and fall, and it yielded Clark III, who has exceeded the early expectations.
As a second-year freshman (2020 did not count towards eligibility because of the pandemic, he started all 14 games, finishing with 63 tackles, 15 passes defended, including the second and third interceptions of his career, and two forced fumbles.
He was named All-Pac-12, and just last week, received a preseason AP All-American second-team nod. As those expectations heighten, Clark III appears ready to rise to the challenge.
“If I’m up at the facility, he’ll say. ‘Coach I’m coming.’ He had an insatiable appetite from the beginning and he fell in love with film,” Shah said. “If you really want to become the player that you’re aspiring to, fall in love with film. Fall in love with watching yourself, and great corners, and great receivers, don’t get tired of the jewels, nuggets, embedded in film study. His acumen has increased, his desire to become a smart football player has increased so much. I love his desire to make plays.”
“Clark has almost the exact same approach”
Shah can succinctly recall sitting in Jaylon Johnson’s Fresno, Calif. home six years ago. A four-star cornerback and top-100 recruit, Johnson had a plan for Utah, and it had an end date.
“‘Coach, I’ll be with you for three years, I’m going to earn my degree, and I’m going to the League,’” Shah recalled Johnson saying.
When Johnson got to Utah in the summer of 2017, Shah told Johnson what he wanted to accomplish would take a Herculean effort. He couldn’t party like some of his teammates, he needed to get more sleep, he needed to be more disciplined than everyone else.
Johnson was a second-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2020 and has started all 28 games he’s played in.
Shah now compares Clark III to Johnson, going as far as to say the latter has “almost the exact same approach,” which begs the question, is this third season his final season at Utah?
“‘Here are my goals. I want to be an all-conference player, I want to be here with you for this many years, I want to get my degree, I want to get to the League,’” Shah said, paraphrasing Clark III. “Clark has worked himself into a phenomenal position at being somebody the league is considering, a potential top-round prospect, and for good reason. He did come in mature, he never came to Utah following anybody else’s lead.”
Added Clark Sr.: “I told the coaches, regardless of what your room looks like, regardless of what your situation looks like, not because he’s my son, but because he’s crazy, I’ll bet on Clark. He’s relentless, he’s going to find a way. He’ll sleep at the facility, he’ll compete, he’ll find a way to get on the field.”
“He has a way of knowing what he wants.”
For now Clark III is focusing on Florida and blocking out the mock drafts and thoughts of the NFL.
“Only when my mother brings it up, my mom and my dad,” Clark III said in the spring. “I don’t go out of my way to look at that stuff, it’s always going to be there. The same people that hype you up are the ones that are going to bring you down if you have a bad game.
“Not at all really, unless my parents bring it up.”
Of course, they’re not going to miss a thing.
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