SALT LAKE CITY — In the final minutes of the Pac-12 championship game, with Utah securely in the lead over Oregon and a conference title within reach, cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn went down with an injury.
The injury itself was an afterthought to the excitement on the field as Utah claimed its first Pac-12 title in program history. Players and coaches hugged and shed happy tears as the team celebrated with roses in their hand and between their teeth — the coveted Rose Bowl was near.
In the days that followed, Vaughn announced on social media he had successful surgery and was on the road to recovery — but not before the Rose Bowl. And though just one player on the team, Vaughn served as the latest in a string of injuries in the cornerback room
Utah lost veteran corner JaTravis Broughton to a season-ending injury after the second week of play against BYU and then lost backup Faybian Marks to a season-ending injury in the Arizona game.
For a defense that was already young and relatively inexperienced, losing all three players for the season leaves Utah with few options ahead of a difficult matchup against three of the best receivers in the country, including Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. That leaves just Clark Phillips III and Malone Mataele as the most experienced players left to combat the trio of receivers.
To their credit, Phillips has been a trusted lockdown corner that’s typically been paired against a team’s leading receiver, and Mataele has split time at the cornerback position and at nickel to add depth to a defense that traditionally prides itself on a man coverage. But behind them is few answers.
On the roster, Utah has five scholarship corners, but only freshman, Caine Savage, has taken snaps at corner at the collegiate level — three snaps in the final minutes of the Pac-12 championship game. Redshirt freshman LaCarea Pleasant-Johnson and freshman Kenzel Lawler have special teams reps, and redshirt freshman Drew Rawls and freshmen Elisha Lloyd haven’t taken any snaps this season.
That’s a tall order for any one of those five players, assuming Utah hasn’t moved over players from other positions to fill the need. Cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said no players have been permanently asked to switch positions, but head coach Kyle Whittingham said they’ll do whatever they can to have the best five players in the secondary out there.
“We’ve asked folks to do more, but we haven’t asked anybody yet to change your position,” Shah said. “We’ve been pushing and asking 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 — so that’s been the biggest thing right now.”
But could that mean utilizing one or more of the safeties? What about wide receivers? Or even any of the running backs?
All is seemingly on the table as Utah prepares to combat Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud, who finished fourth in the latest Heisman vote, and his trio of dynamic playmakers. But Shah said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley “continuously puts us in good positions” and will do what’s best for the secondary in a way to help them succeed.
That will likely mean less man coverage and more zone coverage — or it could mean more disguises to trick Stroud. Scalley has been effective this season in dialing up the right type of pressure and schemes to position his defense in a way to maximize their success, even if it may not always resemble a traditional Utah defense given the sheer number of younger players filling a majority of the positions.
“Just being able to keep them in a good mental state to recognize they’re a lot tougher than they ever thought they were,” Shah said.
The situation may look grim coming into the Rose Bowl with the depth tested, but it’s what Utah has done all season as it works to develop young players and give them an opportunity to succeed in their own realm. There have and will be mistakes, but Shah said it’s more about the ability to “win your battle and you’ll be OK.”
The challenge, he added, has everyone on the team excited.
“We’ve played good receivers, we just don’t happen to play all three of them at the same time,” Shah said. “So this does present a unique challenge for us, but no one backs away.
“I mean, these kids are talented — nobody denies that — but you have to beat us for four long quarters. … Having a short memory and being able to make plays against people who are touted to be awesome, who are perceived to be the best, all of that is what you live for as a college football player playing in a Power Five conference and against elite competition.”
In 2019, Utah faced a similar challenge against three NFL-caliber receivers in the program’s loss to USC in the Coliseum. Utah had, arguably, its best secondary in Whittingham’s tenure and the team struggled to contain the trio in Utah’s only loss of the regular season that year. It was a painful loss, but one that provided a blueprint for future scenarios.
But Shah said that 2019 team had “more seasoned kids” and the team was able to have “confidence in terms of structural schemes.” In 2021, it’s a bit of a patchwork to see what can work the best. The result may be better, or it may end in similar fashion to the 2019 game against the Trojans.
Shah said he’s at least able to coach that better now to help the players live to see another down and not get caught up on one mistake (or more).