Utes football planning to replace cornerback Clark Phillips III ‘by committee’

Utes looking to rely on Ole Miss transfer Miles Battle — along with help elsewhere in the secondary.

(Eli Rehmer | Utah Athletics) Safety Cole Bishop participates in the first day of Utah football fall camp in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 31, 2023.

Clark Phillips III deserved to leave.

The Utah Utes cornerback had the type of breakout 2022 season that would catapult a college player into the NFL, and that’s exactly what happened when the Atlanta Falcons drafted him 113th overall in late April.

But now that one of their most productive defenders is gone, the Utes are left needing to figure out how to recreate what Phillips did. Now that the luxury of having one dominant guy is gone, the Utes are going to need every cornerback to contribute.

“I think by committee we can be pretty awesome,” cornerbacks coach Shariff Shah said.

Phillips was the annoying fly incessantly buzzing around the ears of opposing wide receivers. He intercepted six passed in 2022 alone and scored two touchdowns off them.

But the nature of college football, especially at the highest levels of Division I, is players will leave, whether it’s because of the NFL, transfer portal, injury or some other reason.

“Before Clark, everyone was like, ‘How are you gonna replace Jaylen Johnson?’” junior safety Cole Bishop said. “There’s always gonna be somebody you gotta replace, and we’re gonna do our best to do that.”

When asked who among the defensive backs has looked the part when it comes to leadership amid the hole Phillips left, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said there wasn’t enough time to name them all. Coach Kyle Whittingham said he feels like Utah has “a lot of depth at that position, even with Clark’s departure.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) celebrates a stop on a kick return as the University of Utah hosts USC, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

Miles Battle is one of the new pieces that could emerge as one of the team’s top corners. He transferred from Ole Miss, where he was among the best tacklers on the team at his position.

Shah said Battle has already started to ingratiate himself with his teammates, and has done so with his “kind heart.”

“He just has kind of an old soul,” Shah said. “He’s the kind of person that’s in the room and says, ‘You know coach, if we thought about it like this,’ and he drops a little nugget on you. I’m like, ‘Alright, Miles, OK.’ He’s like, ‘You can do what you want, you’re the coach, but I would think that this might work.’ You like that.”

A lot has been said about the potential of freshman Smith Snowden, who played his high school ball at Skyridge and joined Utah in June.

“He’s a bright, bright football player,” Whittingham said.

Utah has plenty of veteran defensive backs it will rely on for leadership and consistency. Among them are Bishop and sophomore safety Sione Vaki. Shah seemed comfortable with the current state of the safeties on the roster.

Bishop lauded the experience of the entire group of defensive backs.

“A lot of the guys, myself included, every year you play, the more experienced you’re getting,” Bishop said. “Obviously, we lost guys — Clark Phillips, R.J. [Hubert] — a bunch of other names. ... But we’ve got a ton of depth this year, I think, at every position, and I think we’re gonna be pretty good.”

Safety Nate Ritchie, who hasn’t played since 2020 due to serving a two-year mission, is back. Scalley said there were “no issues” with him after an injury kept him out of spring practices.

It seems clear the Utes are in a good spot at defensive back, especially with how linebacker Karene Reid talks about the group.

“I’m always blown away by them,” Reid said. “I’m always trying to get work with them because they’re probably the most talented. They just have such raw talent.”

Tribune reporter Eric Walden contributed to this story.