Throughout the fall at Steelers Depot, we will be highlighting several possible draft prospects the Pittsburgh Steelers may have interest in for the 2023 NFL Draft and their performance during the college football season.
The Utah Utes came back to unseat the USC Trojans as a CFB hopeful Friday night, winning 47-24. The offense lit it up for the Utes, but CB #1 Clark Phillips III represented himself well in coverage against a dynamic passing attack. I listed Phillips as one of my college prospects that impressed during conference championship weekend, having saw a few occasions of him staying sticky in coverage and making a key pass breakup in the end zone. Still, I wanted to go back through and examine Phillips’ performance against the Trojans a little closer and grade his positive and negative plays in a more objective lens.
The play referenced above has gained traction on draft Twitter as Phillips makes a textbook pass breakup on future the future first round pick WR #3 Jordan Addison. Phillips mirrors the route on the snap of the ball with his back against his own end zone, covering from a semi-trail position and gets physical with the receiver without drawing a flag. Phillips manages to use his arm and knock the ball away and preventing the score on the slant pattern, sending the Trojans to fourth down.
During the game, we saw Phillips mirror receivers well in coverage, staying sticky at the top of their route and staying in-phase as they come out of their brakes. Here are two examples from Friday night with the first clip showing Phillips running with Addison at the top of your screen, getting hands-on at the top of the route and staying in-stride with the receiver out of his break. The second clip shows Phillips working around the LB to run with #4 Mario Williams up the seam, staying sticky in coverage until #13 Caleb Williams finds another target to complete the pass along the sideline.
Still, there were a couple of coverage busts Friday night against the Trojans where Phillips was directly involved. The first appears to be more of a communication error between Phillips and the deep safety as Phillips initially covers up Addison in the flat in zone coverage, but Mario Williams gets free overtop of Phillips for a big gain down the right sideline for the first down. Phillips likely had the right-side flat zone responsibility in coverage, passing off Addison to the safety who had his eyes divert from Williams running the deep over to Addison who spots up in the middle of the field. Regardless, this bust in coverage appears to fall more on the coverage scheme as Phillips was late to see Williams open.
However, this next coverage bust more directly falls on Phillips’ shoulders. We see Phillips lined up across from Addison at the bottom of your screen with Addison in a tight formation. Addison gives a head fake on the snap to get an inside release, and Phillips overruns Addison to the inside as Addison breaks outside, leaving the receiver wide open down the field along the right sideline. Phillips manages to get on his horse and catches up to Addison, but Addison cuts back on Phillips who overruns the ballcarrier. Thankfully, his teammate comes in and gets Addison on the ground after making the explosive play downfield.
Overall, watching back the full game, I came away a little bit lower on Clark Phillips III and his performance against USC. The pass breakup in the end zone was impressive and is exactly what you want your CBs to do in that situation. He also showcased fluidity in coverage, being able to run in-stride with receivers across the middle of the field and up the seam which you want to see in a cover corner. Still, while one of the coverage busts wasn’t directly his fault on the mishap on the deep over to Williams, the blown coverage on the deep completion to Addison can be marked up against Phillips.
The tough reality for CBs is that you can play a flawless game outside of one or two plays, but those plays can define a game and will stick in the memory of those watching. I’m not going back on my statement that Phillips did have a good performance against the Trojans as Jordan Addison didn’t go off like he tends to do on a weekly basis when Phillips was tasked with covering him. He has good traits as a coverage defender, having enough speed to mirror as well as the aggressiveness and physicality to get hands-on with receivers at the top of their route or at the line.
The key is for Phillips to be more heady going forward in terms of not overrunning the play which was the case with Addison on the final clip. The 5’10, 183lb cover man is only a redshirt sophomore, but he has quickly become one of the country’s most feared defenders in the secondary. Phillips has taken his game to another level this season to the tune of six INTs, two of which he has returned for two scores. While he still needs more experience and may have some growing pains as a younger prospect, Phillips possesses the aggressiveness, ball skills, and instincts to be a ballhawk in the league who can make splash plays.
What are your thoughts on Clark Phillips III’s performance against USC? Do you think he showcased the skill set of a starting-caliber cornerback in the league? Do you think he should be in-play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early stages of the draft? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!