Utah’s secondary has gone from a question mark to a strength in just a few months

The Utes opened the season with some uncertainty in the defensive backfield, but safety Cole Bishop and cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn have become playmaking standouts, with a chance to play on Sundays.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (8) and Utah Utes cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn (5) move in on Oregon Ducks tight end Terrance Ferguson (3) as the Utah Utes host the Oregon Ducks, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

Heading into the 2023 season, there was no shortage of mystery about the Utah secondary.

Who could replace All-American cornerback Clark Phillips, who’d just been drafted by the Atlanta Falcons? Who would supplant safety Clayton Isbell, who had been expected to compete for a starting job, but departed for Coastal Carolina via the transfer portal? Which holdovers would take the next step? Which new imports might fit in seamlessly?

The Utes’ defensive backfield seemingly had a great many questions.

And now it apparently has a number of stars.

While Sione Vaki has received the most attention of anyone in the group on account of his recent two-way exploits, there’s no denying that when it comes to pure defensive impact, safety Cole Bishop and cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn have been the team’s standouts.

To a degree that both are considered to have good chances of joining Phillips in playing on Sundays (and Mondays and Thursdays) in the near future.

“He’s a guy that I believe has a bright future at the next level in this sport,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said of Bishop.

“He not only looks the part of an NFL cornerback, but then he’s starting to play like one,” Utes secondary coach Sharrieff Shah added of Vaughn.

While defensive end Jonah Elliss has earned headlines for breaking out and racking up sacks, and tackle Junior Tafuna has lived up to the preseason hype, and linebackers Karene Reid and Lander Barton (at least up until a season-ending injury) rewarded the copious faith in their ability, the secondary’s contributions to Utah’s excellent defensive performance this season has sometimes gone unnoticed.

But not among the Utes.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (8), celebrates his quarterback sack, in football action between the Utah Utes and the Weber State Wildcats, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

Bishop’s excellence is not all that surprising. He was Utah’s leading tackler a year ago, a two-time Pac-12 All-Conference selection. After being named to the 2023 preseason watch lists for the Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy, he was perhaps the only no-brainer choice from the end of last season to be a starter in the secondary in 2023.

He is just a natural, instinctive playmaker — something Shah brought up a few days after Utah’s victory over USC, where Bishop had to sit out the first half owing to a targeting penalty he was flagged for late in the Utes’ win against Cal.

“That is exactly what he is. We were just waiting, literally counting the minutes and just hoping that we could play well enough and keep it in a competitive stage where he can come back and do exactly what he did,” Shah said. “Cole does so many things to positively affect the game — the fumble recovery, the big hit, the communication that he provides, his mastery of the defense, his comfort and just ability to make others feel at ease. You’re starting to get a glimpse of a player that’s really getting comfortable with who he is, and he wasn’t always like that. So to see him just makes me happy; I’m happy that he’s having success, and derivatively, we benefit.”

Shah’s boss was even more effusive in his praise of the junior from Peachtree City, Ga., who was just named an ESPN Midseason All-America Honorable Mention honoree, and a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist.

“He’s been an absolute baller since Day 1, since the day he got on campus,” Whittingham said. “It was very apparent and very evident that he’s a really good player. Great attitude, and, you know, he’s the whole package. I can’t say one thing about him that is lacking.”

Bishop, naturally, wouldn’t go that far.

With a bit of prodding, he eventually admitted he’s gotten pretty good at a few things — while quickly adding that he’s got plenty of room to grow still.

“One of my big focuses in the offseason was open-field tackling — I’ve gotten a lot better at it. Obviously, there’s still always room to improve, but that was one of my bigger improvements. Man coverage I’ve improved on, and a lot of free safety stuff as well,” Bishop said. “[My biggest weakness is the] same as one of my biggest improvements — open-field tackling. Obviously, you can never be perfect at that, so …”

He has been very, very good, at the least, though.

Heading into Saturday’s game vs. Washington, Bishop (46) is second on the team in total tackles, and also has 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He’s also contributed two interceptions, one forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries.

Little wonder then he’s so highly regarded within the team.

“He’s a great leader … voted team captain by his peers by quite a margin, so he obviously has the respect of his teammates,” said Whittingham. “He is a guy that has got a great work ethic, he sets the bar, and everybody is expected to play up to that level and work up to that level.”

For Bishop, having that “C” on his chest and setting the tone every week is an integral part of how he contributes.

“Yeah, it means the world to me, it’s one of my favorite things,” he said. “What I’m doing, I care more about that than making plays. It’s just awesome to have the guys have faith in me.”

Vaughn, meanwhile, does not have his teammate’s résumé or accolades, but the junior from Beaumont, Texas, is also proving indispensable this season.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn lunges for an pass in the football game between the Utah Utes and the Florida Gators, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

He started four of the 13 games he played in 2021, and made seven starts among his 14 games last season, including the final six.

And yet, nothing was guaranteed for him as he entered the 2023 campaign.

He did not participate in the Utes’ final Spring scrimmage, an encouraging sign for his prospects, as most key players sat out the affair, but the three starting cornerback jobs (two on the outside, one in the slot) seemed very much to be an open competition between himself, JaTravis Broughton, Tao Johnson, Miles Battle, and Smith Snowden — with Faybian Marks considered an outside contender.

Vaughn, Broughton, and Johnson ultimately got the nod, with Battle also grabbing a significant role.

It’s been the former of those who has stood out, though.

Shah attributes that partly to physical stature and skills, noting that Vaughn goes 6-foot-2.5 and 185 pounds, and runs a 40-yard dash somewhere in the range of 4.37 and 4.39 seconds.

But he said the corner’s ability to think the game is maybe what most sets him apart.

“His level of erudition is really impressive. Zemaiah’s the kind of ballplayer that sits in the meetings, [and] having been a former quarterback, he’s asking me such in-depth questions,” Shah said. “And I’m laughing, like, ‘What are you doing? Are you looking at my book?’ [And he’s] like, ‘Coach, I’m just paying attention.’

“… He increases everybody else’s awareness. He makes everybody study a little harder. He’s answering questions before anybody,” Shah added. “So Zemaiah does everything that you want.”

Vaughn agrees that his time spent as a high school quarterback has been beneficial to him as a cornerback.

Knowing the thought processes of a QB has enhanced both his play recognition and his situational awareness.

“Most of the time when I know something’s coming and I can feel it, it usually happens. Because I’ve been in that position,” Vaughn said. “I know what a quarterback sees. And based on what they see, I know how to adjust to it. So that’s really what helped me.”

Like Bishop, though, he’s quick to disabuse you of the idea that he can do anything, or that he’s anything close to a finished product.

He has 30 tackles so far this season (tops among Utah’s cornerbacks), including 1.5 for loss. He also leads the Utes with six passes defended — five break-ups, and one pick (a crucial one late in the Baylor game).

Vaughn said he’s proud of the strides he’s made in man coverage, but says he can take it even further. He also still has room to grow in zone schemes.

Shah has also seen him make progress in some areas (while wanting to see more).

“His physicality [against USC] was something that I wanted to see. Because I thought that that was a part of his game that was sorely lacking,” the DBs coach said. “I’ve never been one to tell a player what he wants to hear, I just comment off the film — and his film [vs. the Trojans] was so impressive. It made me so happy because he and I both know the struggles that he’s gone through to gain weight, to get stronger, to make plays on bigger receivers, heavier ball-carriers, a bigger lineman — and he did all of those things repeatedly.”

All of those compliments naturally make the easygoing Vaughn a bit uncomfortable.

“I don’t like to hype myself up talk about myself or nothing like that,” he said.

Nevertheless, that didn’t preclude him from answering confidently when asked if he felt like he’d be following in Phillips’ footsteps to the NFL.

“Being honest, I do!” Vaughn said. “… I don’t really think too much about that right now, because I’m trying to stay focused on the game. But I do feel that I’ll be next.”

He may not be alone.

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