Utah’s Clark Phillips III vs. USC’s wide receivers will be a showcase of NFL talents — with lots of scouts watching

Phillips III and Jordan Addison are projected first-round NFL draft picks in 2023

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III (1) runs for a touchdown after intercepting a an Oregon State Beavers pass, in PAC 12 football action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon State Beavers, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Following a ”Bloody Tuesday” practice at the University of Utah earlier this week, cornerback Clark Phillips III was asked if Saturday night’s game means more, given the opponent is USC.

Credit to the third-year sophomore, because his answer to that question could have easily been well-rehearsed player-speak. Instead, Phillips III went the other way.

“Yeah, most definitely,” Phillips said. “That was my first-ever game as a freshman (in 2020), and I grew up in the hometown of SC and UCLA. When you play against these guys, it’s definitely something a little bit more.”

And this one could be a little bit more than that.

The Trojans are unbeaten and ranked No. 7 in the latest AP Top 25, making this the highest-profile game Rice-Eccles Stadium will host this season. The Utes losing last week at UCLA means that, if they want a realistic chance at getting back to the Pac-12 championship game, beating the Trojans is essentially a must.

The enormity of Saturday night (6 p.m., FOX) could also have individual implications.

On one side you have Phillips III, on the other you have one of the nation’s most-explosive receiver units in Jordan Addison, Mario Williams, and Brenden Rice, all of whom first-year USC head coach Lincoln Riley pulled from the NCAA Transfer Portal.

In situations where Utah is in man coverage, it could be Phillips III, owner of a nation-leading five interceptions and a leading candidate for the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top cornerback, vs. Addison, an electric talent who won last season’s Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s outstanding FBS receiver.

With Phillips III and Addison both projected first-round picks in the 2023 NFL draft, upwards of 20 NFL scouts are expected to be at Rice-Eccles Saturday night, a Utah athletic department spokesperson told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“They’re playmakers, they make plays on the ball,” Phillips III said. “They’re YAC guys. They make yards after the catch, that’s something they kind of specialize in. It’s fun to watch that (on film) and see what we can do defensively to stop that.”

Added Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham: “That’s as deep and talented a receiving corps. as maybe there is in the country, maybe the best. It’s a big challenge, I can tell you that, and with that comes great opportunity. They’ve got an outstanding group of receivers. They’re talented, they’re dangerous, they spread the ball around so you can’t focus on just one guy.

“You have to be able to cover the whole batch, and that’ll be a big challenge for our secondary, as well as a big challenge for our front to speed up the quarterback so he doesn’t have all day to throw.”

USC’s quarterback is another elite talent, sophomore Caleb Williams, who followed Riley from Oklahoma this offseason via the transfer portal. Williams is another NFL Draft prospect drawing scouts across the Pac-12 footprint whenever USC plays, but he is not draft-eligible until 2024.

Going by QBR, which Whittingham believes to be the best measurement of quarterback play, Cam Rising’s 87.7 QBR is good for No. 2 in the Pac-12 and No. 7 nationally, while Williams is No. 4 in the Pac-12 and No. 11 nationally at 83.0.

Those numbers aside, the fact remains that USC’s offense is explosive, with Addison again among the legitimate Biletnikoff Award candidates at midseason. Across USC’s 6-0 start, Addison leads the Trojans in catches (32), receiving yards (479) and receiving touchdowns (6) as Williams has completed nearly 65% of his pass attempts.

“We watch the film, coaches watch the film, and they discern who’s the guy that can hurt us the most, who’s the guy we want to eliminate from the picture,” Phillips III said. “Of course, when it’s a team like this and they have a lot of guys, it makes things a little more difficult, but I trust the coaches to put us in good positions. I’m just going to do my one-eleventh, own my 20 square feet, go out there and whoever they put me on, whether it’s Caleb Williams, or Jordan Addison, or (running back) Travis Dye, I’m going to be on them.

“It’s a challenge that you anticipate when you call yourself a great defense, so I’m excited to see them in Rice-Eccles.”