The Hurry-Up is your nightly dose of updates from the Ohio State football recruiting trail, keeping tabs on the latest from commits and targets from around the country.
Clark Phillips III had been committed to Ohio State since June, giving co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Jeff Hafley the nation's No. 4-ranked cornerback, and when No. 5-ranked safety Lathan Ransom committed less than a month later, it gave Hafley two of the best defensive athletes in the country to develop into the Buckeyes' defensive backfield of the future.
Two-thirds of that fearsome trio will not be with the Buckeyes next season.
“It's just one player,” “we're Ohio State, we'll be fine” and “next man up” will be phrases tossed around over the next few days. That first phrase is true, the second might be and the third is what the Buckeyes have no choice but to find now after one of the more shocking flips in recent memory.
Let's take a look at each of those phrases as we detail what Phillips' flip means for the Buckeyes:
“It's just one player”
It's true that football is the ultimate team sport, and Phillips is just one player in that machine. But, wow, what a player Phillips is.
Phillips is one of the rare cornerbacks in the country who would have been able to come in from day one and compete for a starting job, and that may have never been more necessary for Ohio State than the 2020 season.
Along with senior safety Jordan Fuller, the Buckeyes will be losing two starting cornerbacks and will most likely be losing all three when Damon Arnette graduates and Jeff Okudah goes pro, while Shaun Wade will be mulling his own decision before the NFL draft early entrant deadline on Jan. 20.
Phillips fits the Wade mold of a physical slot or nickel cornerback who could jam receivers when the Buckeyes decide to utilize press-man coverage, while he also has the versatility to play one-on-one on the outside and in zone coverage and use his elite athleticism and bullish nature to become an effective, hard-hitting run stopper.
He's explosive, quick and has fluid hip movement, so he should be able to develop into a player who can handle the other team's best receiver if that's what is asked of him. He has a nose for the ball, and if he gets his hands on it, he can do some damage with it.
Now, that will be for Utah instead of Ohio State.
“We're Ohio State, we'll be fine”
The Buckeyes' 2018 defense was one of the worst (it might have been the worst) in program history, and the secondary and coaching played a huge role in the embarrassment the unit faced weekly.
That turned around 180 degrees this season despite the personnel remaining largely the same. Hafley and co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison were to thank for that, and Ryan Day's vision for a fly-around defense became a reality with the strong helping hands of both of them.
If the Buckeyes can find a suitable replacement for Hafley to coach the secondary, especially a guy with an NFL background who has a strong reputation for cornerback development, then “we're Ohio State, we'll be fine” starts to move closer to reality. Finding that guy is Day's next off-field challenge, but we have to wait to see if he checks it off the box.
“Next man up”
Phillips is obviously an unproven talent as far as the collegiate level goes, but he could have contended for a starting job for the Buckeyes as a true freshman. And he likely would have become a multi-year starter before dipping for the NFL Draft, even if that meant he wouldn't have started until his second season on campus.
The next slew of Buckeye cornerbacks who are in line to compete for starting jobs at the position next season are also largely unproven at the college level. Cam Brown, Amir Riep, Sevyn Banks and Marcus Williamson, especially the first three, have played some significant snaps on the field this season and stepped up, but most of their experience has come late in the second half when Ohio State has been winning big.
Unlike Phillips, Lejond Cavazos and Ryan Watts III signed their letters of intent on Wednesday to officially become Buckeye cornerbacks. Just like the four mentioned above, Cavazos and Watts are each extremely talented corners but are unproven. Phillips is unproven, too, but he was seen as a special, already polished talent, which is why Hafley poured so much time and effort into landing his commitment right from the jump when he got the Ohio State gig.
Phillips would have been the fourth-highest rated high school cornerback to come to Columbus in the last decade (behind Okudah and Wade in 2017 and Damon Webb in 2014).
That's another reason his loss is so crushing for the Buckeyes and such a monumental gain for Utah, which got a little cocky about signing its highest-ranked recruit in the history of the modern recruiting era.
THE University of Utah.— Utah Football (@Utah_Football) December 19, 2019
It is “next man up” for Ohio State now, though, as Phillips' door has now closed and three of those mentioned above (Brown, Riep, Banks, Williamson, Cavazos, Watts) figure to fill the starting spots for the Buckeyes next season, especially with the transfers of safeties Isaiah Pryor and Brendon White. But perhaps Ohio State could attempt to hit the transfer portal and hope to land a player who becomes immediately eligible.
As for the 2020 recruiting cycle, the dead period kicked in on Monday. The next contact period runs Jan. 17-Feb. 1 before the Feb. 5 National Signing Day. Ohio State would be hard-pressed to pick up a cornerback in this class between now and Feb. 5 and certainly will not get one of Phillips' caliber. Kelee Ringo, the nation's No. 1 cornerback, and Dwight McGlothern, ranked No. 25, are the highest-rated uncommitted cornerbacks left with an Ohio State offer, but Ringo is not a player the Buckeyes will land unless something very, very unforeseen happens over the next month.
When asked on Wednesday if the Buckeyes were done recruiting in the 2020 class, Day offered a sly smirk and said, “We might be able to make some room. ... We’re kind of right at the number right now, but there’s some wiggle room in there.”
That question was mostly in reference to potentially adding Cameron Martinez, a second running back or perhaps a defensive end, but maybe Day has something up his sleeve for the immediate future at cornerback.
As for later down the road, it puts an even bigger emphasis on recruiting defensive back in 2021, which was already a big area of focus.
Tony Grimes is the nation's No. 1-ranked cornerback and has Ohio State high on his list. So does the country's No. 5-ranked cornerback, Jakailin Johnson, who put the Buckeyes in his top six, and two more top-10 junior cornerbacks have Ohio State as a finalist in Avante Dickerson and Ga'Quincy McKinstry.
Lastly, about Phillips committing to Hafley instead of Ohio State:
Yes, you are supposed to commit to a school/program and not to one specific coach. Most players do, but it's a case-by-case basis.
Throughout a player's high school career, most of them will be talking to one coach throughout 80-90 percent of their recruitment. That “80-90 percent” figure is just a number thrown out there to emphasize recruits talk to their potential future position coach at each school a vast majority of their time throughout the process with each program.
They build a deep relationship with their position coach, and I just wrote yesterday about how good the Buckeyes are at building relationships with their recruits. Those relationships are truly deep. Often, they become father-figure-like relationships with their coaches. That's one of the ways the Buckeyes (and Hafley) have become so good at this whole recruiting thing in the first place.
So when that father figure leaves the program you had been planning on coming to for so long, it can drive a metaphorical stake through your heart.
Ransom, Cavazos and Watts each had second thoughts about joining the Buckeyes after Hafley's departure, but they all decided that Ohio State's school and program were good enough to survive the unsureness of Hafley leaving, while Martinez is still deciding.
Phillips wasn't sold. Instead, he will be heading to the program that employs a position coach with whom he has had a very tight relationship with since his second semester of his freshman year at La Habra, Utah cornerbacks coach/special teams coordinator Sharrieff Shah.
From what you hear and read about Shah, he's the type of guy that Buckeye fans, coaches and players would rave about if he was here in Columbus.
A story done this summer by The Athletic's Christopher Kamrini detailed just how important Shah is to that staff. Shah was a standout defensive back and captain for Utah and has been with the staff for nearly a decade. Just like Brian Hartline, Shah is a former player who is now coaching the position that he played for his alma mater and doesn't seem like he's going anywhere anytime soon. Shah has developed several corners who wound up reaching the NFL and will have two more drafted in April.
“Everything,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told Karmrini about what makes Shah special. “The guy has got endless energy, passion, a genuine love for his players and love for the game. He has immersed himself in the techniques and the details of the corner position ever since he got on board. He has been doing professional development, traveling around the country, he’s got a burning desire to be the best. A great hire.”
I detailed some of the reasons for why Utah would be a good fit for an up-and-coming potential star cornerback, and you can read up on them here. But none was a bigger reason than Shah, and with Hafley gone, the Buckeyes couldn't compete with that. At least not in Phillips' case.