Notre Dame coaches see next Julian Love in 2020 CB Clark Phillips III

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

When La Habra (Calif.) High’s football team watches film, Clark Phillips III can’t help himself.

Why only study opposing team’s schemes and tendencies? That’s boring. Teams rarely run or pass the cornerback’s direction anyway. Phillips likes to dissect what happens after plays. The extracurricular activity. Are these receivers susceptible to becoming unnerved?

Phillips, one of Notre Dame’s high priority 2020 recruits, fancies himself as a world class trash talker. He researches his competition to an alarming degree. Select receivers will hear Phillips talk about their family members.

He sometimes memorizes their names.

“I’ll start talking about guys, asking about his family and about his sisters,” Phillips said. “If I can hang out with his sister maybe on a weekend. But no, it’s all jokes. My parents are like, ‘You wouldn’t really do that.’ And I’m like, ‘No mom, never.’ I’ve got a sister myself.”

Ask the coaches and analysts who know Phillips, and they will characterize him as a humble, respectful kid. How he acts on the field is a different story.

At 5-foot-9, 178 pounds, Phillips requires that edge to stand tall against receivers, especially those in his talent-rich southeast Los Angeles area. ND’s staff has seen Phillips overcome those perceived physical limitations and emerge as an elite prospect over the last couple years.

That’s why they compare him to former Irish cornerback Julian Love.

Love, ND’s all-time leader in pass breakups, was never the tallest, strongest or fastest. The La Grange (Ill.) Nazareth Academy product entered college at 5-11, 175.

The biggest difference between the two? Phillips could be in line for a five-star rating. He’s 247Sports No. 3 cornerback and No. 24 overall player. Rivals slates the four-star recruit as its No. 4 cornerback and No. 54 overall player.

247Sports evaluated Love as a three-star recruit, ranking him as its No. 51 cornerback and No. 549 overall player.

“Size-wise, they are almost identical coming out of high school,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “Clark’s got really good speed. He’s faster than Love. He’s as physical as Love and is a sure tackler. He’s got all the tools. He’s not really big and is the same size as Julian Love.”

Irish cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght began comparing the two during Love’s sophomore season. He saw the same work ethic, smarts and instincts in Phillips that helped Love develop into a consensus All-American last season.

Phillips visited ND’s campus for the first time last weekend, prompting Lyght to organize an arranged marriage of sorts. Love took a hiatus from his NFL Draft preparation, joining Phillips for ND’s Saturday practice.

“We talked for a while,” Phillips said. “We spoke about Todd Lyght and his style, the program, exactly how he got out and was able to make so many plays, life, what it’s like to be a Notre Dame athlete that plays football, what schooling was like and just about everything.”

That made an impression on Phillips, who said the Irish are now in his top three schools and could be No. 1. He’s eyeing an ND official visit either in the summer or during the season.

Phillips’ appreciation for the Irish, though, extends beyond the Love connection.

Academic struggles

Irish wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander and Lyght expressed interest in Phillips two years ago. They were unable to offer him until last September.

Phillips’ grades prevented him from being eligible to enroll at Notre Dame. Motivated by Lyght’s calls and texts of encouragement, Phillips poured himself into academics.

“He’s one of the only coaches that has done that,” Phillips said. “Now I’m here because of it. I’ve opened up a world of opportunity because of it. He said that would happen.”

La Habra allows its athletes to enroll in college a semester early. Should he sign with the Irish, Phillips would accept La Habra’s option and join the team in January of 2020. Phillips projects as a player who would see the field early. He could play almost anywhere in ND’s secondary.

“He began to understand time management,” said Frank Mazzotta, La Habra’s head coach. “Getting schoolwork done is very important. Coach Todd Lyght helped him through that. And he maybe even let him know, ‘You can go to Notre Dame. You can be a Notre Dame football player if you do these certain things.’ Clark picked that up.”

Best player in big games

Mazzotta realized using Phillips at only cornerback would mean wasting his talent. So last year, he opted to unlock Phillips as a full-time receiver.

Phillips made the transition look seamless, recording 54 catches for 1,210 yards and 19 touchdowns across 11 games.

Opponents went away from Phillips’s side of the field in 2018. He registered just 10 pass breakups and two interceptions. As a sophomore, Phillips amassed 15 pass breakups, seven interceptions and three pick-sixes.

“I’ve had every college tell me that if he wasn’t a national recruit at corner, he’d be a national recruit at receiver,” Mazzotta said. “That’s how good of a junior year he had.”

For the Irish, however, Phillips looks to exclusively play defense. He might be the missing piece of ND’s secondary. Love’s exit in ND’s College Football Playoff semifinal exposed ND’s lack of depth at the cornerback position.

The moves of Houston Griffith and Avery Davis to the boundary this spring were intended to mitigate future troubles. Four-star cornerbacks Isaiah Rutherford and K.J. Wallace signed with ND’s 2019 class as well.

Adding Phillips to the mix could solidify the position and prepare the Irish for their next CFP run.

“That game that no one thinks you can win, and that guy shows up and is the best player on the field? That’s Clark,” Mazzotta said. “In the biggest games, he’s the best player.”

If that time comes, Phillips will hope to look like No. 27. He could play like him, too. But on the field, he might not talk like Love.

“Sometimes I’ll just let them know that they simply aren’t good route runners,” Phillips said. “Or that they aren’t as good as they think they are ... It’s just something you’ve got to do, especially being a 5-9 DB myself. Those guys are 6-4 monsters.

“I’ve got to get under their skin.”

Clark Phillips III, a 2020 four-star La Habra (Calif.) High cornerback, announced his Notre Dame offer on Sept. 9, 2018.